Sunday, March 2, 2014
A year ago, at the end of that exceptionally hot, dry, summer, I lost a very old friend.
This friend was someone I'd watched, walked beside, touched, admired, and cheered for, for decades.
She was a very large, strong, and beautiful red elm. I say "she", which is not biologically accurate, because she often shed large amounts of seed. At least twice, I put down tarps beneath her, collected her seed, and planted it.
I'd watched her nearly die, and then fully recover, 20 years ago; so I'd been hoping she'd make it this time. That year had been hot and dry, too. This one was apparently too much.
Red elm is one of my favorite trees; I like their attitude and behavior. They can grow very fast when they're where they belong, tend to make big strong logs that can be used in more ways than oak. The wood is beautiful; almost as dark as freshly cut black walnut, with lovely grain; the wood is as strong as oak, tougher than oak, very rot resistant, often splits as easily as any wood can; burns hot, makes the best long lasting coals for holding fire overnight - and - it will dry out completely just standing in the woods for a year. Oak will never- ever- dry out on the stump; not if dead for 2 decades. Oak requires great foresight, and careful storing to dry for use as fuel. And a lot of sweat, wrassling all that soaking wet, heavy as pig iron, oak biomass- at least twice.
Elms are more forgiving (our elms, anyway) - if you weren't able to get this winter's wood cut and stacked under a roof two years ago- you can just cut an elm that's been dead for a year- and burn it efficiently today. (Well, the top. The butt log will be wet enough it will need drying.) Red elm is the same as "slippery" elm; humans have used the inner bark for food and medicine for millennia (which is one reason the tree is less common these days), but in addition to food from bark, the red elms in Canada produced such heavy seed crops that Ernest Seton reported the passenger pigeon flocks migrated specifically to gorge on slippery elm seed.
Probably part of why I like red elms is they are ignored, misunderstood, and undervalued. Underdogs in the canopy. If you look them up on the internet, you'll find the pharm pages usually calling them by a Latin name the botanists declare obsolete; and both sources say "the wood is of no commercial value" - therefore, it's fine when they die after all their bark is stripped. No value? The mind boggles. Never mind all the creatures dependent on them in the ecosystem, in the early 1980's, many of my neighbors made a lot of money- selling their big red elms- to Italian wood buyers. True, local loggers didn't want them. But the Italians paid the same money as for black walnut. They shipped the logs to Italy. Where they were veneered, and the veneer used to make very expensive furniture.
And the freshly cut wood is fragrant. For me, it's a scent associated with childhood- in an unusual way. When I was 8 years old, or so, my family spent 3 weeks in Japan. The shops that specialized in wood carvings all had the same strong, pleasing, fragrance as you walked in the door. I was too young to ask which wood it was, but many of the boxes and figures of dark wood carried it. I'm pretty sure, now, it was Cryptomeria wood, Japanese cedar. The smell of red elm is identical, as far as I can tell, and when I split it, or handle it, it brings many bits of those years and that trip back.
When I first got here, in SE Minnesota, our farm woods had 3 (at least) species of elm; American elm (Ulmus americana) predominated, then red elm (U. rubra), then rock elm (U. thomasii), which I confused with American for years. We had huge American elms; but 90% of them died in my first 10 years here, from Dutch Elm Disease (DED). American elm trees are lovely to look at- but of very little use to humans otherwise. The wood rots immediately; making it dangerous to fell a big tree dead more than a few months- they call them "widow-makers", because huge portions of the top can crack off in felling- and fall the opposite way. On you. The wood is pretty, distinctive, but very little used because it tends to crack as it dries, and warps like crazy. And when the wood burns- it stinks; the farmers in most of the midwest called it "piss-elm". Dry American elm does make a hot fire, though, if stinky; apparently unlike English elm. Most versions of the firewood rhyme from England say "Elmwood burns like churchyard mould; even the very flames are cold." Ew.
Red and rock elm are just a little resistant to the DED fungus. Part of the picture is that American elm is a tetraploid species- it has 4 copies of the chromosomes, which often makes a plant more vigorous. And it was faster growing, and often bigger than red or rock- but they are diploids; and sometimes slower growing means tougher. Sometimes, the diploids can get DED - and get over it. My old friend did; in that previous hot dry year; I watched, afraid I was going to lose her. The stress of the drought brought on a serious attack of DED- I watched the leaves in the crown wither and die. And rejoiced, in the literal meaning of that word, when she recovered over the next few years. I admire survivors. That was when I started gathering and planting her seeds.
No, I never named her. Though I knew her intimately. She stood just beside the tractor road I made into our woods, which we immediately also used for walking and skiing. There were very few times when I traveled that road, in any mode, when I did not pause and look up at her crown, to see how she was doing. I watched hard in the spring of 2013. But she was gone.
She was big. By anyone's standards. I felled her yesterday, and the stump where I cut is about 30 inches in diameter. Very large, for this area; our Minnesota hardwoods are lovely- but smaller than those East and South. The wood from the crown, fully dry after one year, will heat two households for several weeks. Her crown was unusual. Very broad; branching, rising, and spreading with curves that I can only describe as Art Nouveau. And each branch sensible, individual, and functional.
The big trunk is blocking the road now- and will likely block it for a couple weeks, until we can get in through the deep snow and haul the log out with the tractor. I have fantasies of getting one or two of the logs cut for boards. We can use them. And I'll try to get some of the top turned into a bowl or two; red elm is a favorite of wood turners, too.
How does it feel, to burn my old friend's bones?
Warm. Decades of warm.
Long years of memory; long years of companionship. She was my companion.
I don't know if she knew; the gulf between our species is very large; but I knew. And it wouldn't surprise me at all, as either human or scientist, if she knew. Most tree species are tens of millions of years older than our paltry 2 and half or so. They are very sophisticated creatures- and survivors. Their life-pulse is so slow, few humans can sense it; they live in an utterly different way, and time. Right beside us.
She is my companion still. With every chunk of her I put into the stove, I remember our lives. I think she's glad. Now she's warming two houses, full of my family. Her stump is 4 feet tall, and will last for at least 20 years. Big enough to sit children up on; big enough to host hundreds of smaller creatures yet, in that time.
She's taking care of my babies. I'll take care of hers. Some 20 or so of her seedlings are growing; I'll see to it they get a chance.
There is no goodbye here. I looked at her crown so many thousands of times, I'll always see it when I look at her children. Clear as clear.