Branching Out

 

Many years ago a 6-year-old boy walked across the street to the city park. Along the way he took bites from his Winesap and thought, “I would like to have my own apple tree so I can pick apples anytime I want to.” So he dug a small hole with his hands, put a seed from that Winesap at the bottom and then covered it with dirt.

He didn’t know where the idea came from. Maybe it grew inside of him because of a story from a once-upon-a-time book. Yes, the little boy would become, perhaps, another Johnny Appleseed.

Three days after planting the seed, the boy returned to pick the apples from his new tree. But there were no apples, and there was no tree. Disappointed, he wondered how a person gets what he wishes for.

Now, looking back on my little-boy years, I know that it’s possible sometimes to get what I wish for. There are two apple trees in our yard. This year both bore fruit—tiny and malformed Macouns and Cortlands that satisfied the neighborhood’s birds, deer and raccoons.  

The house is surrounded by an abundance of other trees, too, including a relatively small one that, during one of our state’s recent unfortunate weather events, toppled and landed on the deck.

This occurrence merely qualified us to join legions around the state who have their own stories of inconveniences and unbudgeted costs directly tied to Mother Nature’s fury.

Most of us will remember 2011 as the year when we were reintroduced to the need, literally, to carry our own water, and to be deprived for substantial periods of heat, hot showers and hundreds of worthless cable TV stations. But some will remember the year because it delivered arboreal lessons in life and death.

I am thinking of the friends and family of Ruth Byrne, who lived in Old Lyme, and who in all of her 53 years celebrated the splendor of the outdoors. She worked as a hydrographic surveyor, but more than that, spent so many of her nonworking hours on or near the Connecticut River, even from her childhood days in Old Saybrook when she rode her yellow Schwinn to remote spots on the shoreline and in the river valley.

Ruth, then, knew exactly why the Nature Conservancy included that part of our state in its listing of 40 of “the last great places on earth.”

For 25 years, she held her own unique Thanksgiving celebrations at Selden Neck State Park. The last one occurred in early November. There were, in all, six people who boated to the 607-acre island: Ruth, her partner, 59-year-old Mark Benedict, her 15-year old daughter Lisa and three of Lisa’s friends.

That night after dinner, as all lay asleep, a tree fell directly on the tent occupied by Ruth and Mark. Both were severely injured. By the time emergency crews arrived from a number of directions, it was too late to save Ruth. Mark, flown by Life Star to Yale-New Haven Hospital, was in critical condition.

Many who heard this horrific news the next day assumed, as I did, that the tree that fell must surely have been damaged by storms, but this apparently wasn’t the case. A state official said it had grown on an outcropping and showed no signs of weakness—“A freaky thing,” he said. The tree simply chose that moment to fall, and took with it a woman who treasured nature.

At Ruth’s memorial service a week later, hundreds of mourners arrived at the Congregational Church in Old Lyme, and some, no doubt, took note of the stately trees that line the streets of that beautiful town. How lovely. How brutal.

We can be excused if we have forgotten, for the moment, how trees  contribute to the quality of our lives. After the surprise October snowstorm, there were cries of “Cut ’em all down” from frustrated and powerless homeowners. But of course that would take some doing—as 85 percent of our land is wooded. And Connecticut without trees would be unthinkable. Trees help form our very identity.

It was a point made clear as far back as 1667, when the act of hiding Connecticut’s charter in an oak in Hartford, keeping the parchment from the agent of the king, became an important symbol of American independence.

But trees remain prominent not only as symbols but lures. The home page of the Trinity College website, for example, is typical. It uses an image of blazing fall colors surrounding its Gothic urban campus to attract prospective students from places where Octobers remain colorless.

Like Texans, we boast about our natural resources. The Pinchot Sycamore in Simsbury, named for town native Gifford Pinchot, who was selected by Teddy Roosevelt to be the first head of the U.S. Forestry Service, was measured at 26 feet around, making it one of the largest in the nation.

We can also stare upward at a 158-foot Eastern white pine in Cornwall (the state’s tallest), and two magnificent tulip trees that measure 153 feet, in Norwich and Westport.

We use our trees for athletic events. The Connecticut Tree Climbing Competition crowns new champs every year. (In 2011, the female competition was won by a woman fittingly named Bear LeVangie.)

We celebrate our trees in place names. Many tourists and state residents list a restaurant in Ivoryton, the Copper Beech, as one of their favorites. (That historic tree still stands, though it lost some of its bottom limbs during Tropical Storm Irene.)

Connecticut trees are also the subject of paintings and photographs. Anytime you’re in the Windy City and want to see a Connecticut tree, you can drop by the Art Institute of Chicago and view the woodsy etchings of Chester artist Richard Ziemann.

But nowadays trees seem to have a different tint. They seem dark and frightening. The messages of trees are clear enough. Like people, they can provide so much of what we celebrate in life. And they can deliver, on their own or with our help, fatal blows. (Think of the trees in Windsor and Wethersfield used to hang Alice Young in Windsor in 1647 or the Goodwives Bassett in Stratford and Knapp in Fairfield in 1651 and 1653, respectively, all three convicted of witchcraft.)

Trees are the greatest threat to uninterrupted electrical power, and with utility companies having no financial incentive to build underground delivery systems, the problem will only get worse as the years pass.   

So, in the face of all this, when will we return to our tree-hugging days?

Sooner, perhaps, than we imagine. This winter, along the highway after a snowstorm, we’ll marvel once again at the crystalline branches against the stark blue sky. We’ll buy up next year’s batch of syrup tapped from local sugar maples. On a balmy May evening, we’ll savor the burst of spring delivered by dogwoods. Come fall, our hotels and restaurants will welcome Manhattan residents who’ve heard rumors of things that grow tall that aren’t skyscrapers.

Connecticut without trees, after all, would be like Hawaii without pineapples, Florida without oranges, Wisconsin without cheese heads.

Perhaps we’ll string our hammocks from tree to tree and, in time, rock ourselves to a natural sleep, dreaming of days of innocence, and the miracle of a Winesap from mere seed.

Branching Out

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