My Gnarly Old Friend

A few weeks ago a dear friend commented on an old maple tree I had photographed by wondering, “Oh, the things that old tree has seen …” 

This is indeed an old tree, gnarly, weathered and minus a core that had long since rotted away, and perhaps dates itself to most of our family’s time on the Missouri farm. Both the tree and the farm are now safely existing into their third century. The old maple was fully mature when I was a child. Off one staunch limb my father had fashioned a rope swing. I was ten when we moved to what had been my grandparents’ home, so our move up the road was in 1953. Sixty-nine years ago. My guess is that the tree was planted by my grandfather, Mark White, and that it is now perhaps 150 years old. Maybe older. Its age will forever remain a mystery.

In my yard here on Listening Stones Farm I now glance at a maple I planted this spring, now bent a bit by winds that have since followed its planting. The trunk is maybe as round as my thumb, and I doubt if I’ll live to see it large enough for a manly hug let alone matured with a leafy shadow to shade the adjacent concrete patio that was poured and stamped last fall. The old maple at the Missouri farm was well beyond the hugging stage even when I was a child. Maybe two or three adults could clasp hands and cover the circumference.

Perhaps over 150 years of age, the old maple keeps chugging along in life and is now safely living into its third century.

With its inner core … that heartwood … rotted away it’s highly doubtful that anyone will ever know how old the old maple might be. It’s has been that for most of my lifetime. Maybe even longer. With a full canopy of fully alive branches and shimmering, summer leaves, the life-sustaining cambiam layer is charging ahead with ever more food, moisture and energy necessary for the old maple to continue its journey through life.

I love old trees and feel pain when I see one come down because of someone’s inconvenience. On the river road below Sacred Heart two picturesque and staunch cottonwoods were taken down last fall because they were “inconvenient.” They had stood more than 100 feet tall with wide and beautiful limbs and branches. Their stumps were as wide as a 600 gallon circular steel livestock watering tank before fire and an excavator came to rid dear earth of any clue of their prior existence. Like the old maple, their cambiam layers were still churning nutrients up to the very tops of the cottonwoods from the root system. They were beautiful trees. Landmarks, really; trees you were familiar with much like an old friend you met when ambling along on a curvy country river road. 

Other beautiful cottonwoods have met a similar fate. One was the “Milan tree” a mile south of the village that proclaims itself as the Goose Hunting Capital of the World. Among the activists fighting the eventual removal was one who threatened to chain herself to the tree to keep it from being taken down. MnDOT did the honors despite the threats and protests, although I’d suggest that her threats, efforts and words were simply blowing in the wind. My guess is that the farmer whose cropland was shaded from the afternoon sun no doubt petitioned to be rid of what he and other of his brothern claim are “dirty trees” — trees with limbs and other debris that come crashing down from the canopy onto their precious patch of Mother Earth. 

In November without the leaves the old maple looks old and weather-beaten.

Another instance was perhaps a stately ash tree on the last bend of US 75 going into Canby, a lone tree sentinel, an iconic landmark, staunch and proud, standing on a point along the highway. It’s gone. So many are gone, old trees … trees many years older than their land keepers. In these times when trees are severely needed in our grasp of planet health from the effects of global warming, few seem to care. Chainsaws are employed as much as heavy construction machines — front-end loaders and bulldozers hone in to remove any evidence and memory of those shadowy carbon eaters.

So, yes, I love old trees, and our old maple that remains in the “courtyard” of our family farm, itself awarded Century Farm status many years ago. Nowadays the cavity of the old maple yawns openly toward early morning sunrises and was once home to a huge beehive. As children we would lay our forearm against the bark opposite the hive to effectively hide our eyes as we counted our way to 100 in games of hide-n-sneak. Years ago two cherry trees were just to the west of the old maple. They’re long gone. Age caught up to them and they were eventually removed, by then woody skeletons of their former promise of tart pies. Still the old maple kept chugging on.

Like my friend suggested, the old maple has witnessed much through the years including five long stretches of family generations and counting. From my grandfather’s youth and marriage, to the birth and maturity of my father, to my generation of brothers and a sister, to modern times when my nephew and his wife began farming the land, and now their children, the oldest who this fall will be a junior in high school. So, yes, the tree has survived for many years and generations of my family. 

My little maple, planted this spring.

Each of those generations have parked either horse teams or tractors in that shade. As a teenager I changed the oil on tractors under its shaded canopy. After a big dinner my mother had laid out for a haying crew back in the day, and before we headed back to the oven-ish hayloft or field, we would amble outside to lay in the tree’s shade. With no air conditioning, all of us appreciated the shade especially on those hot and humid summer afternoons. Those “90 90 days” when the temperature and humidity met too close to the century marks. We especially loved the shade when the leaves above were shimmering with a cooling breeze.

Recently I sat in a comfortable patio chair on the porch of the farmhouse my parents moved us into back in ‘53, where I looked out across the lawn and adjacent fields. My nephew’s soybeans were breaking through the browned cover crop across the highway. The old elm with the “upside down dancer” limbs had long ago died and removed years ago. My brother and nephew have landscaped around the porch with new shrubs and flowering plants where in my youth there were bushes and a lone conifer tree. The redbud’s at the front of the lawn were removed and replaced with magnolias in difference to my nephew’s wife who grew up in the deep south. Climate change, he said, might make this possible.

Two beautiful old cottonwoods down the road stood for years after they were long dead and finally were grounded by a stanch prairie wind. Their fate was different than the old maple.

My father’s prized white board fences have long been dismantled as were all of the out buildings from his style of farming … the cattle pens, his old fashioned scale, granaries where my brothers and I chanced our hearing with the hammer mill grain grinders, and his tall white landmark barn. Gone, too, is the pole barn machine shed he built over my mother’s last great garden. A huge, modern machine shed was built this past spring for my nephew’s machinery.

All that remains from my childhood besides the old farm house where I sat was that old maple. The ageless maple is now more of an old friend and family member than a mere tree. My friend, the old maple, has weathered significantly in its aging, and those large poetic gaps gracefully reveals its inner soul. Leaves still flutter in the wind, shimmering as if a “latent” haying crew … ol’ Ed Troeger, the Norton boys, maybe an Amish lad or two awaiting their bearded stage … laid in momentary rest on the grassy carpet beneath.

My old friend, the maple, will outlast me, and maybe with luck, even my middle-aged nephew. Who’s to say it won’t? If there is a given to be gained from our family’s farm place is that you can never count out that old maple. Not back then. Not now. And perhaps, not ever.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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