A belated Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you. There seemed to be green everywhere yesterday, and speaking of green, today I have trees on my mind, not all trees, just a certain kind of tree…
Have you ever looked out on fields and seen a tree that was just massive? You can tell it has been there for a very long time. Was it standing alone like a lone sentry or providing vast swathes of shade to a centuries-old farmhouse? If the answer is yes, you may well have come upon what is known as a “first-growth tree,” a tree that is described so beautifully in Our Vanishing Landscape, a 1955 book by Eric Sloane.
Such trees provide first-growth timber, the strongest and best timber of all, timber that our American ancestors were blessed with in abundance as they took to settling the land and harnessing its natural resources. Per Sloan, this was “wood grown from untouched earth with the humus and peat and the natural rot of age-old forests.” He describes how, today, seemingly dilapidated centuries-old barns made of chestnut may actually still be in exceptionally good shape, the wood in even better condition than any new wood that could ever be found to replace it.
As you can imagine, in many parts of America today, first-growth timber is quite rare. Certainly that’s true in the East. Many of America’s forests and woods were cleared to make way for agriculture. But, says Sloane, America’s first farmers would leave some first-growth trees dotting the landscape to serve as navigational markers, and often they would choose their home sites based on the fact that a first-growth tree stood nearby, for shade, and as a reminder, he says, that “into that tree went the memory of all the forests of great trees that had disappeared around it.”
I grew up in a farmhouse that was built in 1774, and I often think of that place and its beautiful surroundings, and my mind always wanders to a maple tree—a gigantic maple tree—that stood to the rear of the house on the left, alongside a babbling brook. It’s only after reading Sloan’s book that I realized a first-growth tree in the form of that maple had quite possibly been in our midst all those years ago, and perhaps that is why, subconsciously, my mind, without fail, wanders back to that tree… There is something about nature that pulls us, captivates us, calms us, and has the power to make us feel whole. That tree was magnificent. I’ve been searching for a photograph of it, and I’m sure we have one somewhere. The closest I’ve gotten so far, however, is an image with just part of the tree in the background.
It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to be in a place where the majority of maples were that size. Unfortunately, history and human circumstances have denied us of the possibility to see such trees en masse in many parts of the country. We have to seek out our sequoias and redwoods and travel to mountain and forest places left largely untouched by human hands and natural disasters. We can dig into historical records to find traces of giant trees, and examine paintings by artists of previous centuries to catch glimpses of past American landscapes. As I look at paintings by 19th-century American artist George Inness (1825-1894), for instance, I see what I think must be at least the occasional first-growth tree dotting his landscapes. Whether they were there in reality or his imagination conjured them up, I don’t know. But, for instance, go back to the top of this post and look at the tree hiding in the background on the right in his painting In the Berkshires. That tree looks absolutely gigantic.
Interestingly, Sloane points out that it is documented that trees the size of California’s redwoods once existed in the East. He cites an 1841 record of a walnut tree that once stood in Forestville, New York, a mile above the mouth of a creek, named Walnut Creek after this tree. The giant tree was “36 feet in circumference at its base, gradually tapering 80 feet to the first limb. Its entire height was nearly 200 feet, and was estimated to contain 150 cords of wood, or 50,000 feet of inch boards. The bark was a foot thick. The tree was entirely sound when blown down in 1822…”
When I went on the Fulton History website to look into the existence of other giant trees reported in the press, I discovered an article in The Album of Rochester, New York, dated December 1, 1825: “An Elm in Hatfield, Mass. is supposed the largest tree in New England, It measures in circumference 34 feet at two feet from the ground; at the height of five feet, the smallest place in the trunk, the circumference is 24 feet 6 inches. There is a cut in the tree four feet from the ground, which tradition says was made by the Indians, for the highest rise of water in Connecticut river.”
The December 12, 1826, issue of the Franklin Herald and Public Advertiser (Greenfield, Mass.) contained an article on large trees. Some excerpts include: “The Charter Oak in Connecticut — From the best information that we can obtain, says a Hartford paper, this tree is no less than four hundred years old; it is 23 feet in circumference near the ground, and at the height of 7 feet, it is 17 feet in circumference; the height of the tree, is about 70 feet; some of its branches extend 20 feet. […] In May, 1826, there was an Elm blown down in Wells, (Maine,) which measured 27 feet and 4 inches in circumference, making the diameter something over 9 feet; and was 40 feet from the foot to a crotch; from thence it was 20 feet to the first limb, running to the height of 60 feet from bottom before it had any limbs, when it expanded to an immense size. The exact height of the tree could not be accurately obtained, as the top was much broken, but was computed to be upwards of 100 feet. […] The Lexington, Ky. Public Advertiser says, that there now stands on the bank of the Ohio river, in the State of Indiana, opposite the mouth of Salt river, a Sycamore tree, which has stabled fourteen head of horses at one time, with ample room. It takes 75 long paces to go round its trunk, and you may with perfect ease turn a fourteen foot pole in the inside of its cavity.”
The New Jersey Fredonian on April 11, 1827, reported that a giant poplar in perfect health had [very sadly] been felled by a Mr. Moser on his land in Berks County, Pennsylvania. It was 117 feet high with a circumference at the base of 20 feet 7 inches. The first limb appeared at 64 feet off the ground. It was estimated to be at least 300 years old by those who examined its circles. The article’s author, lamenting the poplar’s demise, referred to it as the “largest solid tree” ever seen or heard of, and a “giant of the forest.”
The Onondaga Register of Onondaga Hollow, New York, on 28 July 1827 included an article originally reported by the Allegany [sic.] Democrat of a massive sycamore tree that had provided a winter residence to a family of seven: “There is now on the farm of Mr. Andrew Beggs (painter) of Pittsburgh, a sycamore tree, in which a family of seven persons, resided all winter, having been detained by the freezing over of the river while ascending it. In this tree they found a comfortable asylum from the storms of a severe winter, with room for all the necessary furniture and cooking utensils, having a fire in the centre Indian style), the smoke of which ascended through a whole in the trunk occasioned by the breaking off of a large limb from the tree. This giant of the forest is about fourteen miles below Pittsburgh, and directly on the Ohio River.”
Then I came across this 1842 article (page 72 of the Farmer’s Monthly Visitor, Vol. 3-4) describing a gigantic maple, a tree very dear to my heart, as you know ;-). Perhaps, best of all, at the end it contains a list of the largest trees known to exist in the US at the time. (Bear in mind that at this point in history, the United States had only 26 states.) Scroll down for an image of what was probably the giant sycamore in Ohio with the 60-foot circumference, and an article that may refer to the New York sycamore.
One thing is for sure: if you see a BIG tree, it always leaves a BIG impression. And it’s clear that big trees made a big impression on our ancestors too!
So as you go about your travels, keep an eye out for any first-growth trees—elm, maple, sycamore, poplar, chestnut, oak, hickory, pine, etc.—you see (or think you see) in your neck of the woods. Feel free to report back here in the Comments box. Better yet, email me a photo, and I’ll post it here for others to enjoy and try to imagine the glorious age-old forests that greeted our early American ancestors. And/Or consider posting your find on the Monumental Trees website so that even more people can learn of your discovery. Let us treasure those giant trees in our midst and do everything we can to assure their survival.
Well, Hubby and I had an epic summer vacation last month, and as promised, here are some images of the places we visited. Between the two of us, we took hundreds of photos (actually, over 1,000—but I find that embarrassing to admit, given in the old days, I would have returned from a vacation like this with a few rolls of film and thought that that was a lot). I’d hoped to pick out a representative ‘Top 10,’ but could only whittle the massive heap down to the ‘Top 50’ featured below.
Our Itinerary: We flew into Portland, picked up a rental car and started a clockwise tour—out to Hood River along the Columbia Gorge, then to rodeo-town Pendleton and agriculture-oriented Hermiston to visit some of hubby’s childhood friends, and then on to the La Grande area (hubby’s childhood stomping grounds). We took a day trip out to Wallowa Lake and took time to take the tram up Mt. Howard (8,150′ elevation), before heading southwest to the middle part of the state, passing through the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and then over-nighting in Bend. From there, we visited the majestic and awe-inspiring, sapphire-blue Crater Lake and spent several nights at tiny Rocky Point along the upper northwest edge of Upper Klamath Lake. With that as our base, we were able to head back up to Crater Lake for a second visit, this one to cover the eastern half of the loop road and take a boat tour. From Rocky Point, we headed west to Grants Pass and then southwest to Kerby, where we discovered a fascinating ‘store/wood workshop/home’ called ‘It’s a Burl’ whose grounds include multiple tree houses that can be climbed by children 12 and over. Then it was on to Crescent City, California, where we stayed at a trailer in the redwoods for a couple of nights, long enough to walk some of the major trails of the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Then we headed up the coast, stopping at dozens of gorgeous spots along the way, before ending up back in Portland.
Of course, there is much we did not get to see or do. A future trip will have to take in much more of the spectacular Cascade Range and the NW coast. But we did the most with the time we had. It was a great trip, and I could easily come up with a Top 50 of new things learned (but will spare you the tedium). Here is a list of 10 completely random things I discovered (in no particular order). Or skip this section and head straight to the photos!
Random Things Learned:
1) Pelicans – In my ignorance, I’d always thought they were a coastal bird only found in Florida, so I was surprised to see a giant white pelican hovering over Upper Klamath Lake, part of a significant and vast wildlife refuge for all sorts of birds. Apparently the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) spends time inland at places like Upper Klamath Lake during breeding season.
2) Redwoods – I plead ignorance again. For some reason I’d expected to see giant sequoias (diameter up to 40′) as we toured around NW California’s forests. I did not realize that those are confined to the Sierra Nevadas, quite far down the state, not too far from Death Valley. So instead what we saw were coast redwoods which reach a diameter of 22′-27′ wide at the base. They are much taller (up to 370′—the tallest trees on the planet) than the more rotund inland sequoia (up to 300′). The coast redwoods can be more than 2,000 years old, and the sequoias more than 3,000 years old. While ‘slimmer’ than the sequoias, the coast redwoods are still an astounding sight. It is very sad to think that only 5% of the original old-growth coast redwood forest remains today, thanks to uncontrolled logging during and after the California Gold Rush of 1849. Walking through these forests of ‘giants’ is an awesome experience. Let’s hold on tight to the ones that remain.
3) Crater Lake (surface elevation roughly 6,100 feet) – the freshest and purest water in the world according to scientists. The lake, which sits in a vast caldera created by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Mazama, which took place 6,000-8,000 years ago, is six miles wide at its widest point. It is the deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere, with one spot measuring 1,949 feet. No fish are native to the lake, however some species were introduced between 1888-1941. Today, only Rainbow Trout and Kokanee Salmon survive, and it sounds like the park would be happy to get rid of them—fishing is encouraged, no license is required, and there are no limits. The only caveat: no live bait for fear of introducing more non-natives.
No snorkeling or scuba diving for that reason too, but swimming is allowed. But, of course, you have to be prepared for the round-trip hike down to the lake, a journey that is obviously much more brutal on the way back up. Far trickier to get rid of are the crayfish introduced in 1914 in the hopes they would serve as fish food. Unfortunately they have multiplied to such an extent that they are pushing out the native Mazama Newt. Both compete for the same food source: insects. The newts are in a ‘be eaten or flee’ situation, and so have ended up pushed to the edges of certain lake areas. So far, scientists are stumped as to how to get rid of the crayfish, or even cut their numbers. Crater Lake is an awesome sight—a life experience I’d recommend to anyone. Just make sure to avoid the annual average of 488 inches of snow, the last remnants of which typically do not disappear until July!
4) Monkey Puzzle trees – I’d only ever seen Monkey Puzzle Trees (MPT) when I lived in the UK. So I was completely surprised to run across two during our journey: the first in Shore Acres State Park which has a fabulous seaside botanical garden. The young monkey puzzle tree was tucked to the side of one of the walkways in a not-overly noticeable spot. The other tree was in a completely unexpected spot on the corner of a very busy NE Portland intersection. I can’t imagine it surviving there indefinitely. Its sharp branches are bound to end up scraping someone. If you haven’t heard of these trees, they are native to a small area in Chile; in fact they are Chile’s national tree. The first saplings were brought to the UK in the late 18th century and eventually the tree became wildly popular there. Their scaly branches are very sharp and spiny, almost reptilian looking. How to climb such a tree would puzzle any monkey (this notion is what gave the tree its common name). As for Portland, I have since learned that there are dozens of monkey puzzle trees spread throughout the city; many are over 100 years old. Their curious presence is explained by the fact that at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition seedlings were handed out to visiting Portlanders who subsequently went out and planted them.
5) Dutch Brothers Coffee – Loved the coffee at these little drive-thru stands. Looks like the young people working in them have a blast doing so. Perhaps, the company, which started out in 1992 in Grants Pass, OR, will someday venture beyond Oregon, California, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, and Arizona? I hope so!
6) World War II civilian casualties on the US mainland – I never recall hearing about any civilian casualties taking place on the US mainland during WWII. Then, at the Klamath County Museum, I learned that the Japanese launched thousands of balloon bombs that were carried by the winds to North America, in the hope they would explode somewhere in the US and cause fires calamitous enough to bring troops back to the US to protect the West Coast. The remnants of 15 such bombs were discovered in Klamath County. The only casualties in the US from these bombs occurred in Klamath County on May 5, 1945, when six people on a picnic lost their lives: Elsie Mitchell (26), Jay Gifford (13), Edward Engen (13), Dick Patzke (14), Joan Patzke (13), and Sherman Shoemaker (11). What a tragic time that must have been.
7) Pendleton Underground Tours – a fascinating look at what went on illegally and legally in Pendleton for many years when it was the ‘entertainment capital’ of Eastern Oregon. Historians take you on a tour of an underground area encompassing four city blocks. The underground rooms were connected by ‘service tunnels’ dug and reinforced by Chinese laborers in the late 1800s. Illegal card games, bootlegging, and prostitution were rampant in a town that then boasted 33 bars and 18 brothels. The tour takes in the ‘Cozy Rooms’ brothel which remained in operation into the 1950s. Legal businesses underground included a meat market and a Chinese laundry & baths where the cowboys could clean up before meeting the ‘ladies’.
8) Best soft serve ice cream ever – Hubby had been to this Elgin, Oregon, roadside food stand numerous times years ago, and was delighted to see that it was still there. We stopped by on our way back from Wallowa Lake. Sizes include ‘Baby’, Small, Medium, and Large. The baby size, which I ordered, was huge, prompting us both to quip, “Wow, that’s a big baby!” And it was so inexpensive — just $1.50! Of course, now, I wish I’d gotten the Large ($2.75). 😦 I would teleport myself back there in a heartbeat it I could!
9) Lan Su Chinese Garden – the most authentic outside of China – is located in Portland. Built by Chinese artisans from Portland’s sister city Suzhou, the Garden takes up an entire city block. It was definitely a major highlight of our few days in Portland. I’ve been to China a couple of times, and visiting this place transported me straight back there. It is simply stunning.
10) Cape Perpetua – Lava flows from volcanoes or underwater eruptions 50 million years ago are responsible for the intriguing, randomly sculpted basalt shoreline at Cape Perpetua. Here, the ocean can be felt in all its power, especially at high tide, when the water explodes its way through ‘Devil’s Churn’, ‘the Spouting Horn’, and ‘Thor’s Well’. The views of the coast from the adjacent mountain top (see image inset) are stunning as well.
Well, I shall rattle on no longer. Enjoy your day! To view the below images as a slideshow, click the first image and use the side arrows!