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Tortured Trees

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.

Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all.
- Ogden Nash


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

    – Joyce Kilmer


Joyce Kilmer's most famous poem has been parodied hundreds of times, probably for good reason. If a student submitted Kilmer's poem in class, he might have trouble getting a passing grade. Better critics than I have said that Kilmer would have matured well. But he was killed in action in World War I, so we'll never know. What we do know is that he was Vice President of Columbia University's Philolexian Society, a literary club for poets. We also know that that society sponsors the annual Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest, so at least somebody in the loop has a sense of humor (here's the 2008 winner, the lament of a lovestruck sophomore in Anatomy class). If you need a reminder of Kilmer's original verse, here it is. This story is really about trees, not poetry. In our travels, Barbara and I have seen a lot of trees, some more unusual than most. There are some that are simply awe-inspiring, like this large triplet on the lawn at Lake George's Battlefield Park in upstate New York. It's not likely that tree was there for the Battle of Lake George in 1755, but it has certainly seen a lot of tourists come and go.

The little logo next to the title is not a tortured tree. It's the outline of Connecticut's beloved Charter Oak. This tree stood on a hill on the property of George Wyllys, who was the Royal Governor of Connecticut in 1642. The colony's charter granted Connecticut the right to autonomous government without Crown interference, a most generous bequest. In 1687, the new king tried to confiscate the charter and thereby rescind this right, but shrewd colonists hid the document in a hollow in this tree. The King didn't last long, but the Charter did. It was eventually recovered, and served as the State Constitution until a new document was ratified in 1818. The Charter Oak became a cherished symbol of American independence. After the tree fell in a thunderstorm (1856), it was given a State funeral with much mourning. Some of its wood was used to make a chair that sits in a place of honor in the State Senate. It was estimated that the tree lived 1000 years.

One more normal tree, and then we'll get to a few oddballs. This crape myrtle graces the gardens that Frederick Law Olmstead designed for George Vanderbilt's mansion near Asheville, North Carolina. It's a lovely tree, even without its flowers or foliage. The reddish bark is kind of delicate, though.

Now here's a tree that can handle adversity. It's in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, on the trail down to the Lower Falls. It's just a few minutes' walk from the Loop Road, so that trail gets a lot of use. Most people just walk on by in their rush to see the waterfall. The falls are spectacular, but this stubborn tree is impressive, too. How old is it? How much earth has eroded away since this tree was a seedling?

Trees thrive against the odds in urban settings, too. This one is growing right out of a wall that contains the River Stour in Canterbury, England. With walls like this on both sides, the river looks more like a canal at this point.

Returning to North America, we find these trees in Haida Gwaii, a misty mystical island group about 60 miles off Canada's west coast. Like Ireland, this is where prevailing westerly winds make landfall after a long reach over the ocean. The abundant rainfall makes everything green here; trees grow quickly and they grow tall. This attracts loggers, and caused a dispute heard worldwide. Here, Canada and the Haida Nation agreed to disagree. Some prime timber has been saved from the clear-cutters, but not all. These trees are on a footpath leading to the Yakoun River, where it was once possible to view the famous Golden Spruce, sacred to the Haida for hundreds of years. That tree isn't shown here because it isn't tortured – it's dead. Grant Hadwin, a disturbed environmentalist, cut down this great tree in a misguided effort to make a statement of some sort.

Louise Island is virtually uninhabited now, but it was once the site of a thriving village, and later a busy logging center. Most of the logging here stopped at the end of World War II, which dates all the trees in the background here. The star in the center was left alone for some reason, looking like something from a hobbit world. Also like Ireland, Haida Gwaii has been called Emerald Isles. With the lush moss growing everywhere, it's not hard to see why.

OK, one dead tree. Spruce and fir grow tall and straight here. The Haida used them for three kinds of totem poles. This one commemorates a great chief who hosted thirteen potlatches, if we're to believe the number of rings. That's almost certainly an exaggeration. A potlatch was an enormously expensive undertaking.

Moving down the Pacific Coast, we find some cultivated trees that have been trained to grow in intricate patterns. This one is in a Japanese garden, the oldest part of the estate at Butchart Gardens, near Victoria, B.C.

This magnificent arbutus is also in Victoria. In the U.S., this tree is called madrona or madrone, after the Spanish word madroño (strawberry), referring to its red bark. These trees grow on the "wet" side of the Cascades, from northern California to British Columbia. There are a few dozen striking arbutus in Victoria's Beacon Hill Park, but this one is clearly the champion.

Welcome to the Robin's Nest, a garden and gift shop in Friday Harbor, Washington. There are tables and chairs under that canopy where customers and other visitors may sit and look up through the contorted branches of the Camperdown elm, whose canopy gave welcome shade on a rather hot day. This type of tree can't reproduce – the only way to make more of them is to graft cuttings onto the trunk of another elm tree. So every Camperdown elm in the world is essentially a clone of the original mutant that an alert forester noticed in Scotland, in 1840. There's a lot to be said about this gardener's delight. Rather than go further on a tangent here, I've posted a separate article, with more pictures, about the Camperdown elm.

Banff National Park, Alberta

Near the place where Johnston Creek empties into the Bow River, a sign invites you to "walk into a mountain." The trail quickly puts the visitor within a deep canyon. It looks like this tree is writhing to escape.

Farther along is beautiful Lake Louise. These trees are above the perimeter trail that leads to the glacial melt that feeds the lake.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California

Calaveras County, California, is where Mark Twain met his famous jumping frog. It's also where you can find some enormous redwoods, This one is the Palace Hotel Tree, also called the Chimney Tree because of the way it was burned out. Hikers named the tree for San Francisco's Palace Hotel because the large opening at the base reminded them of the hotel's courtyard. You can see a larger view of this photo, or look at the images on the right to see a progressively closer look. It's not until you see how small a person looks there, that you fully appreciate the size of this tree.

The Keyhole Tree is also called the Bear Slide Tree because bears supposedly use it as a sliding board. It's certainly smooth enough.

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake is the site of an ancient volcano that blew its top about 7000 years ago. Many of us remember the disaster when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, forcing hundreds from their homes and killing 57 people outright. This exhibit at the Silver Lake interpretive center compares the output of some notable volcanoes. St. Helens is the smallest one, front and center. The largest one is Mount Mazama, which ejected more than fifty times as much material as St. Helens. As at Yellowstone, the mountain lost so much mass that it caved in on itself, leaving the depression that became Crater Lake.

The highest point that remains of Mount Mazama is Cloudcap, 8070 feet above sea level. The wind is ferocious up there, but these Whitebark Pines have survived it.

– for the most part.

These two are on the opposite side of the lake, near Hillman Peak. John Wesley Hillman was the first white man to see the lake. He found it accidentally while he was looking for gold.

Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

Early in the 20th century, a visiting minister declared this area to be a garden "fit for the devil himself." So the Park Service has called it the Devil's Orchard. Many of the trees here were killed by a combination of good intentions and bad management. Dwarf mistletoe is a small parasitic plant that has a symbiotic relationship with limber pines. The first photo shows the skeleton of the two plants. Early park managers thought this "witches' broom" was unsightly. So they poisoned or cut thousands of trees that were supporting the mistletoe. It took a long time before they realized that the trees benefitted as much as did the parasites.

There are trees like this all over the park. The lava beds of the Snake River Basin are the result of eruptions from the hot spot that eventually migrated beneath today's Yellowstone National Park.

Arches National Park, Utah

Wind and sand cause relentless erosion, but these trees in the southeastern Utah desert have managed to hang on. These are near a large pair of arches called the Windows.

Another part of this park is called Devil's Garden. It wasn't named by the same minister who left his mark in Idaho, but the same spirit is evident. In the first photo, Utah's La Sal Mountains are in the near background, with the Colorado Rockies more distant.

This curiosity is in an industrial part of Sioux City, Iowa. Nobody was around to ask about it, and there was no obvious explanation as to how it got there or why.

How do trees get to the middle of a river? These are in the White River in northern Arkansas, downstream from the Bull Shoals Dam. Maybe they got their start 65 years ago while the lake was filling behind the dam, when the river would have been artificially dry. The water is very cold; as afternoon cooled off to evening, that fog formed from nothing in about ten minutes.

This looks like another hobbit tree. It's near Devil's Lake, Wisconsin.

These two are near Copper Harbor, at the end of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula – which is at the end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The stream in the first one is Named for Fanny Hooe, who vanished without a trace while picking berries here in 1846. The roots of the tall pine remind me a bit of that determined pine at the beginning here, still soldiering on at Yellowstone. There's a much larger version of it here.

In 1990 a developer bought a few acres near Ephraim, Wis., and started to clear the property for a large condo motel. He felled over 400 trees before the neighbors figured him out. The village successfully sued him to stop, and bought the property. The tract is now a wetland preserve, but some of the trees are somewhat worse for the wear. Not all the damage was done by humans.

These trees are not part of the preserve. They're around the bend at Eagle Bluff, site of the lighthouse in Peninsula State Park.

The "All Saints" maple on the Bard College campus (Annandale, N.Y.) was once New York's State Champion. (The champion is picked by a formula involving the size of the trunk and crown.) The it was struck by lightning, and burned by a suspicious fire a few years later. Even the diminished version is one of the largest trees on campus. It's estimated to be about 300 years old.

This hardy survivor is on the airport road at Rutland, Vermont.

Asticou Gardens are at Northeast Harbor, near Acadia National Park in Maine. This old tree is next to a lawn that's popular for picturesque weddings and other occasions.

From a sign in the city's Public Gardens:

Trees are treasured in Halifax. The Public Gardens have been the supply source for many trees that now beautify public spaces in Halifax. Some trees planted by the earliest settlers are still thriving today, to the city's joy.

Throughout the Halifax Gardens, there are dozens of trees that look like they grew up on psychedelic food.

We started this section on the West Coast. On the East Coast, Aunt Bride's Lookout looks out over Gunner's Cove at the northeast tip of Newfoundland. The next land beyond the horizon is Ireland. The place can be stark and lonely, and the trees don't grow very tall. They also don't grow forever. This one is holding on hard to a few leaves, but it's a losing battle.


A tree won't last long unless its

… hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast

– remember Joyce Kilmer? No roots, no tree. Like the younger live ones behind it, this unknown soldier at Skidegate Landing (Haida Gwaii) did its best to persevere, even though it had only rocks to grow in.

In Jasper National Park, this tree looks like it's trying to jump over Athabasca Falls, but its roots are holding it back.

At the other end of the Icefields Parkway, these trees are near Johnston Creek. That's where we walked into a mountain. The hillside is wearing away, but the trees won't give up.

Wisconsin. This pair survives where a developer once tried to clear a parcel near Ephraim to build condominiums. These Door County trees are tough, as we see at left. Despite relentless erosion, these hearty guardians at Northport still give shade to the cliff at the edge of Death's Door.

Ordinary Trees, but Very Large

Most trees are not tortured. It was a stifling hot day when we went looking for the Camperdown elm in Friday Harbor. Before we got there, we came upon this beauty that almost obscures the three-story building behind it. Its shade was most welcome on a day without a breath of wind.

Half a continent away, this majestic sentinel brings comfort to picnickers on the Lake Michigan waterfront at Saugatuck.

Finally, we come to Cabbage Island, Maine. That's the Atlantic Ocean off to the left. We couldn't get close enough to see if this was another Camperdown elm. But the shape looks promising, doesn't it?