Once More to the Old Tree

By Corinne H. Smith

In November 1860, Henry David Thoreau walked around the neighboring town of Boxboro to inspect an old-growth woodlot owned by Henderson Inches. He was fascinated by the oldest oak trees he had ever seen. He made two separate trips in eight days and did a lot of trunk measuring. “I can realize how this country appeared when it was discovered,” he wrote on November 10th. “Such were the oak woods which the Indian threaded hereabouts.”

The oldest tree I ever met was a craggy and shaggy sycamore that lived a few miles from my childhood home. Our Girl Scout troop visited it once, probably in the late 1960s. We were told then that it was either the oldest or the largest tree in the state. Or was it the country? I forget. I remember that its arms stretched over the front yard of a farmhouse that was otherwise surrounded by cornfields. One huge branch almost touched the ground. We could have climbed up and sat on it, but we were warned against doing so. Someone was worried that the branch would break off under our weight. Being an avid tree climber myself, I was disappointed. The tree was great to look at. But I longed to clamber over that one branch and to sit among its massive leaves for a while. I would have been careful. I wouldn’t have broken it.

Fast forward, forty years. Now most of the cornfields are gone from this area. They’ve been replaced by a four-lane highway, strips of businesses and eateries, and a road leading to the Old Sycamore Industrial Park. It’s ridiculous. I feel a sense of indignation whenever I pass by the intersection.

I voiced this opinion to a childhood friend recently, as he and I were riding along the main road. “It’s too bad that the only legacies left of the tree are its name and its picture on that stupid sign,” I said.

sycamorepark

“What are you talking about? The tree’s still there,” he said.

“No, really? I assumed it had fallen down or had been plowed under.”

We made a quick turn onto Old Tree Drive, passed a few faceless facades of warehouses, and then turned left into a small parking lot. Sure enough, there they both still stood: the farmhouse and the sycamore tree. I was amazed. The developers had chosen to leave them alone.

And yet: time and circumstances had aged the tree a great deal. Fresh leaves showed that the tree was still alive, but much of its main trunk had deteriorated and was missing. It seems never to have grown straight up toward the sky. Instead, it grew out and across the yard. The low main branch I remembered was now supported by a short post, and part of it had long settled on the ground. The higher main branch also rested on a large support timber. This sycamore was an even older man now, receding and wasting away, needing crutches. But it was still hanging on; still taking in carbon dioxide and giving us fresh oxygen in return. Thank you, Tree.

sycamore1

In the days that followed, I grew curious about this sycamore. Was it the oldest or the largest, within any political boundaries? I did some brief research. A contributor to a 1944 state tree book called “Penn’s Woods, 1682-1932,” said that this one was ‘Pennsylvania’s Most Massive Tree.” Local newspapers occasionally ran stories about the tree, but the articles didn’t include any accolades. I clicked on some web sites that documented the oldest or biggest trees in the country and in the world. But no one had yet registered “our” sycamore on these species lists. And I didn’t have any numbers to make accurate comparisons. So I did what Henry David Thoreau would have done. I went back to the site outfitted with a tape measure, a camera, a notebook, and an assistant.

sycamore4

We measured the girth – or, what remains of it – at 25 feet around. The low branch is about 70 feet long and is generally about 7 ½ feet in circumference. We can estimate that its age is somewhere in the 300-350 year range, taking it back to a time when this place really WAS part of Penn’s Woods and was merely a colony. I registered the tree on an international Monumental Trees web site. According to the lists assembled there, this one may not be the oldest or the biggest sycamore tree in Pennsylvania. One in Lansdowne may beat it out by 100 years.

Our sycamore may not be an award winner or a “witness tree,” but it has witnessed quite a lot. We can be proud of its history and its stamina, and we can admire it for as long as it is able to live with us. And yes, I still desperately want to climb over that low branch. I haven’t … yet.

(Thanks to Paul Martin, Jr., for his help in this rediscovery.)

3 Comments

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Nature, News and Events, The Roost

December Immersion – from Walden to Paris

No, I’ve not been soaking in Walden water, or any other water, as our winter comes on, but I have been re-immersed recently in Henry Thoreau’s words. Prompted by an invitation to explain Thoreau’s experiment in living to 20 graduate students at Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastique (IHEAP) in Paris, I’ve returned to Walden, and, as always happens when I reread this deeply familiar book, I’ve been amazed by its insights and universality.

At the same time, I’ve been challenged by the “seminar” that lies ahead this week. Not only will it be via SKYPE, not for me a familiar way of being with others, but the group of artists from around the world I’ll be working with reportedly have only the slightest sense of who Henry Thoreau was. And, as added complexity, a number of them will be working in a 2nd language.

How to bring Henry into sharp and real focus in our 90 minutes?

IHEAP’s focus for this year’s program is a help: soustraire, or subtraction, as method for and in support of creativity and art is the year’s theme, and I’ve found it a fine lens for looking at Henry’s Walden experiment. After all, Walden is all about subtracting the usual or familiar from life in pursuit of awakening and then adhering to the real, and Thoreau, crucially, has to subtract the expected self in favor of finding a real self.

Hmmm…I’ve just reread the last sentence and found myself saying, “show me what you mean.”

Okay, here’s example: Henry Thoreau, possessor of exceptional physical and mental vitality, and – very rare for his day – a college education, would have been expected to be a central figure in Concord. He became just that, but not in the way local society would have imagined. Rather than becoming a “select” man of the town, at 27 Henry decamped for a nearby pond and set up solitary living. “What’s that Henry (or David) Thoreau up to?” many must have muttered. Added to that consternation was Thoreau’s determination to become a writer. “He’s gone off the tracks,” more than one Concordian must have declared. And indeed he had (as well as going off on the tracks, but that’s a pun only Henry would like.)

What more did Henry subtract from his life so that he might develop his insights and art? Here’s a partial list of identities not pursued or subtracted: husband, father, teacher, householder, pillar of town society, rich man, majority member, all-day worker, church-goer, elected official.

And what subtractions might you add to this list? Or remove from it?

Thinking of creativity and art as subtraction has been fascinating; it is, among other things, another application of Thoreau’s famous advice: “simplify, simplify”;  it is also acknowledgement that we are in need of less rather than more in this age of surfeit.

1 Comment

Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden

Effet du Matin

I’ve resisted the obvious, but in the end I’ve found it impossible, and so here is a short piece about Monet and Thoreau. There are many shared affinities – water, light, immediate Nature – but the catalyst for me has been a painting Monet did in 1882.

I first saw Église at Varengeville at a small museum during a recent sojourn in Paris. A few days earlier, we had, as seems appropriate for such a viewing, walked a number of miles to reach The Marmottan, another small museum not far from the Bois de Boulogne. There, we had eased through rooms of paintings Monet left to his son, who, in turn, left them to the French people. Unlike the crowded center-Paris museums with their famous Impressionist stock, this old house of a museum had only a few visitors. At one point I found myself alone in an oval room, surrounded by paintings of plants from Monet’s Walden in Giverny; no one else breathed; the air seemed to quiver with color and light.

All of this brought us to the Luxembourg Gardens museum, where I was again amid throngs. Perhaps you have this experience too, but I find myself distracted by people in museums – I often end up spending more time watching people looking at paintings than I do looking at the art itself. I think of it as the “ert” watching the inert, or the other way around.

Anyway, amid the crush, I reached three paintings labelled “Effet du Matin,” and the mention of morning and its effects rang, as it always does, the little Thoreau bell in my mind. I began to study Église at Vargengeville, and then, even given light jostling, I was alone in its colors and light.

image1

The church sits atop a high cliff that falls to what seems to be ocean, and it – the church – looks like a hat sizes too small for the cliff it tops. That stone is the painting’s real subject, I think, and it is alive with morning light, its streaks of color rising from what looks like kindled flame at the painting’s base. The eye is drawn to the cliff and lifted; the heart is uplifted too.

That seems the effect of light in this best season of the day, the time of awakening. Even after we left the museum, I kept returning to Effet du Matin, just as, given a morning mind and luck, we see fresh light each day.

2 Comments

Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, News and Events, The Roost