To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Part 4: Post 7: Trees, Revisted

Black Birch
 I’ve really liked these last few weeks of labeling trees.  I get the blank labels from the herbarium, take along one or two field guides and a pen, and spend an hour or two labeling all the trees in a particular part of campus. It’s an excuse to be outside, and I get to see parts of campus where I don’t normally go. If I don’t know a tree I can always look it up, and I do know a lot of them. There are also areas on campus where a lot of trees of the same kind cluster, and that makes it easier. I did all the Norway spruce in one session, for example, because they are all in a line.

As I mentioned a while back, these lines and clumps are relics of the way the property was landscaped  before Charlie got here. He's already altered a lot of the original pattern--like the Norway spruce line is missing a lot of its trees, and there are white pines, eastern hemlocks, and both black and yellow birches planted in the gaps and on either side. So you can tell that there was once a regular line of spruces, single-file, all the same size, defining a large grassy rectangle near the Mansion, but what is actually there now is an irregular forested strip curving around the berry orchards. As I mentioned, he took out more of the spruces this past May, so there's only a few of them left. They are the short-needled trees whose twigs droop down on either side of the branches, like the leaves of a magazine held with its spine upward. People plant them in their front yards a lot. I really liked seeing them this winter, when the wind, snow, laden, lifted the dark branches and sang. A whole line of them must have been something. But I think I like the variety better, the brighter and darker greens of the different trees, the yellow birch bark peeking out among the darker trunks, birds and squirrels chattering from cover up in the branches....

Northern White Cedar
 Some things Charlie does not seem in a hurry to change. The fourth wall of the spruce rectangle was a line of arbor vitae, or, as Charlie wants me to call it now, northern white cedar. The white cedar made another, smaller rectangle, enclosing a formal garden--and it still does. Charlie has added a few younger ceders, but he hasn't removed anything. The cedars are native, and the deer like them. So does Charlie; he brings cedar tea to Paleolithic Dinner, sometimes. The formal garden is still there, only now all the flowers and shrubs are native, and most of the grass has been replaced by moss and ferns. The spruce rectangle must have seemed pointless to Charlie, because he has utterly changed its character, but something about the cedar rectangle and the garden appealed to him.

I wouldn't have noticed any of this detail if it were not for this project. I mean, I knew, in a general way, that Charlie was working to re-wild the campus, but I would not have seen the details of the older scheme, nor seen exactly how the old and new plans interweave. The old, gnarled trees along the main driveway were once an avenue of sugar maples, for example. While the property lay abandoned, before the school got here, a lot of younger sugar maples seeded in, and Charlie kept them and protected them from the deer and the goats, so now we have an avenue of venerable old trees maybe two or three feet across surrounded by a lot of younger, small trees maybe six inches across and thirty feet tall, plus younger trees, saplings of various species, here and there. I think they tap the larger trees, and I've found some stumps, as though Charlie is thinning the young trees here and there, to give them room to grow, but
Red Maple
the ground looks wild, with leaf litter and seedling trees and wild flowers here and there. So what was once purely decorative is now partly productive and partly wild and still beautiful. You can see the Mansion through the screen of summer-green trees, but only intermittently, when the wind lifts the branches and you get a glimpse of cultured white, the building where you are going. The long tunnel of leaves over the dirt and gravel road smells cool and living and genteel and secret, all at once.

This is all a deliberate creation, the product of a human vision, just like a flower garden. It is not natural...but I'm starting to think it may be wild, or at least getting there.

And it is learning to see the details of the artwork, labeling every single tree, that has shown me the single exception to Charlie's plan, the single place where he planted a non-native tree. It's in the formal garden, off towards one corner. It's a Chinese dogwood, too small for me to have to label it, but it got my attention so I looked it up anyway. From it's size, Charlie had to have planted it, or known about its planting--it doesn't predate him, I mean. At the base of the tree is a wooden plaque, with the name "Abia" and the years 1902-1990 engraved in it.

I asked Charlie about this the other day. I was doing my homework in the Great Hall, and he came in and sat before the cold fireplace for a while, staring at it, nursing a drink. Of course he was drinking water. Charlie is the only person I know who can sit drinking a cocktail of plain water while staring entranced at a fire that isn't there. I did not greet him, nor did he speak to me. I've learned to leave him be, when he's in a quiet mood, and so we spend a lot of time together, not talking, and I do not know whether he is enjoying my company in a quiet way or actually ignoring the fact that he isn't alone. Anyway, after a while, I asked "why a Chinese dogwood?" and he raised his eyes a fraction, without quite coming out of his...trance, for lack of a better word, and answered without looking at me.

"My mother liked them."

I nodded, and let him be again.

[Next Post: Monday, July 12: the Spirit of Reason]

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