Trees, by William Weaver Christman

(In 1934, on the verge of turning seventy, Christman published this essay in a local literary magazine called Trails. A lifelong farmer in Duanesburg just west of Albany County, he’d always enjoyed literature; earlier in his life, he’d corresponded with Walt Whitman and befriended John Burroughs, the Catskills nature writer who was world famous at the time. On the eve of turning sixty, Christman began writing poetry and published four volumes in a dozen years that described the hardships of farming what the final book called The Untillable Hills. Alan Casline discovered Christman’s work by browsing copies of Trails in an antiques shop and became a fan. He reprinted this essay in Normanskill, a handsome small press anthology. Today, Christman’s old farm is a Nature Conservancy Sanctuary. The dream he expressed in this essay has come true. Trout have returned to the Bozenkill.)

I never pass the ancient ironwood tree in what was once John Ostrander’s wild pasture, but I pause for a moment to feel its fibrous bark. Its roots are thrust so deeply into perpetual moisture, which is the very fountain and source of the eternal life men know here, that I touch the hem of its garment reverently, thinking it might bestow on me a measure of what it has received. John left his place in the sun for the valley of shadow more than forty years ago, but his ironwood, that should be more than a centenarian by now, lords it over the fifth or sixth generation of stag horn sumacs that it has known. It is a tree of generous girth with a wide, spreading top, unlike the ironwoods of the forests, with bark as tough and dark as a coconut shell.

When I first noticed them I cannot say, but I never pass that way but I pause to feel of the characteristic, perpendicular corrugations on the water beeches that grow along the creek on Grey’s farm. They are as old as water beeches grow, dating back probably to the flood of 1869 which swept this valley as Vermont was swept in 1929.

An elm that lies rotting among the fiddleheads nearby stood shorn of twigs and small branches looking like a giant cactus for a long while before it fell. It was the home of several varieties of woodpeckers during its last years, among them the rare and beautiful red-headed woodpecker which nested there one summer more than thirty years ago.

Very near the fallen elm is the fisherman’s leaning elm that stands knee deep in wild sunflowers. This will pass presently like the elm on the opposite bank, that gradually undermined by the current, plunged across the stream and was long used as a bridge by squirrels, raccoons, and foxes.

Another nearby tree is a butternut with which I have been intimate for more than forty years. Two long-armed men could barely span it with outstretched arms four feet from the ground. Th leverage of its spreading top is slowly splitting the trunk and a wind storm of more than usual violence or a wet snow may soon put a period to its existence.

Among the hardwoods on the north bank of the creek is a walled spring, nearly dry, indicating the falling water level; nearby between the tumbled foundation stones where stood a house, springs a sturdy butternut and near at hand stands a spindling wild apple and a lilac bush, relics of a remote generation. Mid-May is the time to go and see the great flower trilliums that bloom there as thickly as daisies in a hill meadow, in what was once Robinson’s front yard. Robinson has become a mythical figure. No man living remembers him. I doubt if the name his parents gave him is known. He was probably a squatter here. His generation dates to the Mexican war. When I was a youth one of the oldest inhabitants of these hills pointed out the nook near the foot of a little stream that cascades down from Settle’s hill where Robinson or some other equally fabulous and felonious citizen used to butcher stolen sheep and calves to replenish the household larder.

What a book might be written about Robinson’s butternut, one chapter on the squirrel that planted it. Another on the melting snow and April rain that softened its bony shell, and others of its first glimpse of the encroaching wilderness, of the glorious summers it has experienced, about its quiet winters, and how this nook which is now a remote wild pasture was once inhabited by human beings as mean and unworthy of such beauty as ourselves.

A famous observer once catalogued and described the various oaks, maples, and wild apples within the circle of his walk, and now before it is too late the raccoon trees in this wild valley should be classified, since loggers and hunters multiply and the raccoon family, lacking shelter, faces extinction. As soon as a tree has arrived at that period in its life when it may become the home of a raccoon some enterprising woodlot owner fells it for firewood, or some old hunter who goes through the woods scanning the bark of trees for signs discovers it and brings ax and gun to demolish and destroy. I too learned the hunters trade but did not follow it. Many a day in early winter I have spent in these woods searching for raccoon “signs,” or what is more tangible to the novice, a track like the print of a baby’s foot in the soft snow, and following it have found the author of the print in a hollow tree. Perhaps it was only a stub twelve to fifteen feet high in which he planned to spend the next two or three rigorous months; if it was, a couple of blows with the ax would awaken the tenant, and he would climb up and look silently over the rim of his tottering domicile. Sometimes when the tree was roomy, one would find several raccoons. But hollow trees are rare now, and the raccoon seems to be changing from a tree dweller to a cave dweller. We find him now housed for the winter in a crevice in the rocks and occasionally in a woodchuck’s burrow. Man owes his existence and progress to somewhat similar changes, according to the anthropologists.

I remember tracking a raccoon after a light November snow fall to a big cavernous basswood half way up the hillside on the Ira Ostrander farm. All the circumstances surrounding the occasion are still distinct in memory. Ira was what we called “close-fisted” and cherished the most decadent tree in his woods as the apple of his eye. It is recorded in the annals of the neighborhood that Ira cut his oats with sheep shears during the great drought of 1864, hauled them into his barn in a wagon box, and saved the very last kernel of the crop. Without asking permission, I notched the tree on the lower side and prepared to remove the landmark from Ira’s inheritance. The tree stood only a little way below the railroad and I waited until a train was passing so Ira would not hear the crash if he happened to be abroad. Then a few blows with the ax on the upper side sent the tree plunging down the hillside where I captured and killed the raccoon a minute or two later. Ira and his good wife, Kate, went to their reward many years ago, which I hope is better than this stony, untillable farm on which the wilderness year by year encroaches.

Bee trees are going the way of raccoon trees and the bee hunter must search many woodlots now before he finds one inhabited. When he does discover one he carves his initials in the bark, just as the bee hunter did fifty years ago, indicating his priority of rights. The scarcity of suitable trees has driven the honey bees as it has the raccoons to new and novel domiciles. I have seen a swarm take possession of a window when the blind was closed. In another case a swarm entered a knot hole in the clapboard near a neighbor’s front door and took possession. My neighbor obligingly used the back door and the bees occupied this novel hive for several years until a more aggressive tenant took over the farm. On one occasion a small swarm or the advanced guard of a large one preempted the unused chimney on my house and fell to work as though house cleaning for a day or two and then suddenly abandoned it, perhaps for cleaner and more commodious quarters in the woods.

The changed and changing habits of men, raccoons and bees to which I have referred is also evident in birds. It may not be a digression to mention here that the chimney swifts having long ago forsaken hollow trees for our unused chimneys remain dissatisfied after I set up an old stove in the backyard for outdoor cooking and washing I heard a strange commotion in its interior. On lifting a lid I found a swift inside, bewildered, sooty, but very much alive. It had entered by way of the two lengths of pipe that I had set up to insure draft, probably looking for a nesting site. On several occasions I have seen the swift and the phoebe exploring my well, which is an open one with a sweep and bucket for drawing water. They were looking no doubt for a place in which to rear their young.

Time erases and destroys more silently but just as efficaciously as I removed Ira Ostrander’s basswood. I have in mind the twin elms that stand a little way below the falls of the Bozenkill. We discovered them more than twenty-five years ago. They stand exactly four feet apart. The smaller tree is two feet and four inches and the larger tree is three feet and two inches in diameter. They are united by a branch about five inches in diameter, which apparently sprang from the trunk of the larger tree twelve feet from the ground and united with the smaller tree at about sixteen feet. The union of connecting limb is so perfect, that except for the upward trend of the branch it would be almost impossible to determine to which elm it originally belonged. We trimmed away the underbrush, built a little cairn of stones, and steadied the photographer on its summit while she took a picture. It is fortunate that we secured the photograph at that time, for the top of the smaller elm was broken just above the connecting branch and though still adhering to the stub has come to rest with its several prongs on terra firma. It is probable that while the union of the cambium layer of the projecting branch with the smaller tree was perfect, friction before the union took place was responsible for a dead spot in the trunk of the smaller tree which caused it to break and fall.

Sometimes, it may be a hundred years hence, there may be many more trees, not twin elms, not water beeches and ironwoods, those weeds of the woodlot, but more hardy woods, more cedar, spruce, hemlock and pine which the generation now arriving will plant where the glaciers spewed their clay and boulders. This hill-land so back breaking and heart breaking to the plowman will presently be abandoned for agricultural purposes and reforested. I heard an old man say his grandfather used to catch trout in the Bozenkill. Trout will return to it then. It will sing all summer as in a rainy April. There will be more raccoons, because there will be more trees for them to live in; more warblers and thrushes because there will be more trees for them to nest and sing in; more trees and therefore more bees, which should make these foothills of the Helderbergs as famous as Hymettus.

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