Posts Tagged ‘favorite trees’

By Bob Chrisman

Trees hold a special place in my memory. I planted lots of trees in the yard of the house where I lived for the first 21 years of my life. The poplar trees went along the north border of the yard next to the gravel alley. They grew tall and then split in heavy winds. I learned that not all trees live a long time.

I planted a maple tree in a spot near the raspberry patch. Subconsciously I must have known that it would grow tall enough to shade the raspberry bushes and keep the sun from nourishing them. It took ten years for the tree to grow to a height sufficient to block the sun on the west end of the patch. By then my mother had stopped picking raspberries and selling them to her friends and neighbors anyway so she didn’t miss those bushes killed by the lack of sunlight.

My favorite tree was the Dutch elm that grew in the side yard. It provided solace to me in my childhood. When I was punished as a very small boy I would take my teddy bear which was as big as I was and carry it to a place under the tree, throw it on the ground, and lie down with my head on his chest and cry. The old black cat would come from wherever he was in the neighborhood and sit next to me and the bear until I stopped crying. Then he would wander off. I would pick up my companion and carry him back into the house.

That tree watched over me for many years until it died of some disease. All those years it escaped the Dutch elm disease only to die of some other cause. I sat and watched as my father cut it down and wondered what life would be like without a place to cry.

I read a book one time about the spirits in trees and how each tree has its own personality. My experience tells me that the spirits do exist. We usually aren’t quiet enough to feel them or hear them. No, they don’t talk like we do, but they express themselves through their movement and the leaves.

The cedar pines outside my grandmother’s farmhouse whispered in the slightest breeze. I curled up on the daybed on the screened in porch and fell asleep to the sounds of those trees talking to each other and the background conversations of my family in the living room of the farmhouse.

At the cemetery about a half mile from my grandmother’s house, the shushing of the cedar pines became the voices of the dead buried among the roots of the trees. No matter how hot the temperature in the world away from those trees, the air under those trees was cold as though when the dead talked they expelled the coldness of the world in which they lived.

The sycamore trees that grow in the park not far from my house spread their branches across large areas. The big leaves provide shade and shelter to all different kinds of birds and humans. People, with their bags of possessions, sleep under the trees during the late afternoon and early evening. People picnic at nearby tables. The walkers and runners appear to relax when they reach the shade.

In the winter these same trees with no leaves looks like skeletal hands reaching toward the sky to beg some god or goddess for the return of spring. The bleached whiteness of the branches against the cold blue skies of winter or the gray clouds that bring snow beseech some higher power for the return of warmth.

The sweet gum tree that grows in my front yard shades the house from the intense afternoon sun. The huge leaves provide hiding places for the squirrels and birds. For some reason no birds nest in the tree. Maybe they know that the wood is too soft sometimes to withstand the windstorms.

In the fall a leaf turns yellow, detaches from the branch, and floats to the ground. Soon the entire tree goes from the vibrant green of summer to the soft yellow of fall. Next the leave fall to the ground covering the yard in a layer of golden yellow and leave the naked black branches to hold the winter snow.

-Related to topic post WRITING TOPIC – TREES. [NOTE: This was a Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman joined QuoinMonkey and ybonesy in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.]

-Also related to posts: PRACTICE: Trees — 15min (by ybonesy) and PRACTICE — Trees — 15min (by QuoinMonkey).

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I’ve always noticed the trees where we’ve lived. Growing up on Neat Lane, we had out front a big sycamore that Dad kept trimmed into a tidy globe of leaves. In my memory, there is a sidewalk under the tree where the itch bombs fall and gather. We pick them up and for fun explode them, throw them with all our might onto the sidewalk.

Except, I’ve been back to Neat Lane several times as an adult, and there is no sidewalk. I think there’s a curb, but beyond the curb it is up to each family to landscape their yard. Some people — like Dad — kept their yards worthy of the street’s name. Others (and again, in my faulty memory I see a washing machine and old love seat on the front porch of the neighbors across the street) did not.

It is the trees that attracted me to the house where we live now. Someone, and I imagine it to be a her, lovingly picked out the many trees and placed them all around the house, knowing that one day they would grow huge and tall and would shade the place, keeping it cool from the summer heat.

There are Ponderosas and an ornamental plum that blazes a deep red you can see from the road. There are poplars, one is now diseased on one side, that grow high without becoming wide. The leaves look like the cottonwood except silvery on one side, and in hindsight I realize the poplar reminds me more of an aspen than a cottonwood, although I believe all three are from the same family.

In our old house there was a locust tree that drew me in, outside the kitchen window. How many times did I sit on the cozy warm tiles in that house and write, pausing to stare out at the small deep green leaves of the locust?

Some trees are invasive, I’m thinking now of the elms that Jim got permission from our neighbors to cut down. The elms were on the fence line, Chinese elms, of the variety a former mayor long ago imported to Albuquerque thinking they would grow well in the arid landscape. When Jim felled those elms (and I like using the word “felled” although it seems unnatural to my language) I mourned them. I looked at them as living things, yes invasive, but they provided shade and privacy. Jim saw them as water mongers, non-native species, and I suppose he imagined a different kind of tree, one better for the water table, in their place.

Dad always disliked certain trees. For a long time he and Mom complained about the large Russian olive out front next door. It dropped tiny leaves and spongy fake olives, causing Dad much consternation. A tree is a tree, I would think. Why in the world, how in the world could they dislike a tree?

Russian olives are in fact bad for the valley and come up like little weeds everywhere. Jim has gotten rid of quite a few, but I look at them and think of the old olive trees I saw once in Jerusalem, in Gethsemane’s Garden, and I see how the trees get gnarly and thick, and each layer must have seen a different scene. If you cut back the bark, you’d find a layer that saw Jesus himself.

That’s what I think of when I think of the Russian olive. Or I think of a family photo I remember that hung in the hallway of Jim’s parents’ house. I would stare at that photo when I first went there to visit with Jim. The trunk grew sideways instead of up, and it eventually did grow up, but the sideways portion made a natural bench on which the family sat or leaned. It was a photo of them long ago, when everyone was young and Jim’s parents were at their most vibrant. Something about that photo appealed to me, like I could see marrying into a family that sits around a tree.

I think of trees like people, and I think about how we want to be like trees. Grounded and firm, with strong roots going deep into the land. Sometimes when I water a tree, I think about how the root system underneath is probably as long and wide as the portion of the tree that grows above the ground. Like a mirror image.

If people are like trees, that means that beneath us we have our mirror images, supporting us as we walk, reflecting back to us whatever it is in the core of our earth.

I couldn’t imagine living in a place without trees, and yet what I love about New Mexico is that the tree is sacred. It is not abundant, and when we see it we seek it out for shade. If I had a patron tree, like a patron saint, it would be the cottonwood. Dark, rough bark that protects the soft wood inside. And deep roots. A sign always when you see it that water is nearby.

-Related to Topic post WRITING TOPIC — TREES

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Northern Burr Oak - 333 Years Old - 192/365, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Northern Burr Oak – 333 Years Old – 192/365, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

On Sunday I joined over 100 people in Riverside Park near the Franklin Avenue Bridge to pay tribute to the oldest known tree in Minneapolis. It is estimated that the Northern Burr Oak dates back to 1677. In the wake of the oak’s recent death, Minneapolis Parks and Recreation will be cutting it down in the Fall. We listened to sculptors, poets, neighborhood kids, and Cancer survivors who found solace in being near this tree. It felt to me like I was standing on hallowed ground. The tree has outlived all the humans who have ever set foot here. Imagine what she has seen.

In this photograph from 1941, the ancient Northern Burr Oak seems healthy and happy, her giant crown holding court over the Mississippi River Gorge.  Here is an excerpt from documentation at the site of the gathering:

IMG00354-20100711-1942.jpgTHE ANCIENT OAK TREE  — Perhaps the oldest living thing in Minneapolis is the huge Northern Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa var. olivaeformia) that graces the west bank of the Mississippi in Riverside Park, about two blocks above the Franklin Avenue bridge, an enduring sentinel at the point where River Road West descends down into a most picturesque stretch of river gorge. Estimated by various botanists to be all the way from 150 to 700 years old, this valiant aborigine stands 58 feet tall, with a branch spread of 66 feet and a trunk girth of 14 feet at a point two feet above the ground. Symmetrically beautiful, this “first citizen” of Minneapolis, surviving the storms, drought, and fires that during the years have scourged the area of others of its kind, still remains a picture of physical strength and majestic beauty. Many are those who periodically come to Franklin Terrace to admire this grand old tree and to marvel at its great antiquity. In his little book, Riverside Reveries, published in 1928, Dr. Otto F. Schussler paints a beautiful word picture of this beloved old tree that “with a quiet dignity unsurpassed, and a perseverance unfaltering through the years continued to grow in size, in strength and ever-increasing beauty.”

-from the book Minneapolis Park System, 1941, by Theodore Wirth


As to the fate of the tree, opinions were mixed. Should it be cut down and turned into sculptures or pins? Should it remain as it stands, a living monument to all it has seen? Should the tree be felled and replaced with sapling Burr Oaks? What is the best way to honor the life and death of an ancient tree? Let it stand or let it fall.

After I returned home, I started to think about all the posts ybonesy and I have done about trees over the years. There is the giant cottonwood in the courtyard of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, and the Lawrence Tree that Georgia O’Keeffe painted just outside of Taos, New Mexico. ybonesy has written about the cottonwood in her backyard and the carving of the Virgen de Guadalupe in a cottonwood in Albuquerque. She also wrote a piece about the art of Patrick Dougherty who uses the limbs, trunks, and canopies of trees to build his installations.

One year on my travels to Georgia, I visited a ginkgo in Augusta that was supposedly planted in 1791 for the visit of George Washington. And last year, for the first time, I stood under the giant pine where my paternal grandmother is buried. Our guest Linda Weissinger Lupowitz writes about New Mexico cottonwoods in What’s Happened To The Corrales Bosque? And in Fourteen Dozen Roses: The World As The Jungle It Is, Erin Robertson shares her poetry and explains how her tattoo of a ginkgo leaf makes her feel closer to her grandfather.

What do trees mean to you? Is there an oak you visit that brings you peace? Do you like to write under a grove of Ponderosa pines, sketch the bark of the ash in your front yard, run your fingers across the groove of a cottonwood’s skin. Have you lost a tree that was important to you. Are there trees that make you feel closer to home. Get out a fast writing pen and spiral notebook and get started on a Writing Practice My Favorite Tree. Ten minutes, Go!

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Cotton pickin’ cottonwood, detail of the cotton produced by
the female cottonwood out near our back patio, photos ©
2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
…or is it prolific?
I’m a giant cottonwood, tall and stout
I make lots of cotton if there is no drought
When I get a bloomin’ then I shout
Just watch my cotton blow all about

Whatever the case may be, this particular Rio Grande cottonwood produces a heck of lot of cotton. The tree is female. You can tell by the seeds she produces in early spring, which by late spring dry and split open, revealing tufts of cotton. Breezes pick up the cotton, carrying it for miles.

Yesterday, almost eight weeks after this tree starting shedding cotton everywhere, I drove slowly on my way from work on the look-out for other cottonwoods that still had giant blobs of cotton yet to shed. I didn’t find a one. Within about a mile from home, I noticed the small white cottony seeds, floating like snowflakes past my car. Is that from our cottonwood? I wondered.
For two months, we’ve raked cotton out of flowerbeds, picked it out of potted geraniums and roses, and scooped it out of our pond. Each time after we clean up, everything turns white again. We have never seen a tree produce this much cotton. Ever. And we’ve lived among Rio Grande Cottonwoods almost all our lives.

Last night, as has been the case many nights, this female cottonwood is the topic of our conversation. Jim and I gripe about the fact that there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. It is almost July and cotton is still dropping in clumps on the patio and in the pond. Dee, listening to us, interjects.

“My science teacher said the Cottonwood will become extinct in my lifetime.”

Jim and I stop complaining and look at one another. “Well, that may be,” Jim sadly concurs.

The Rio Grande Cottonwood is a flood-plain tree that reproduces by seeding. Described this way by Southwest journalist Jay W. Sharp, Once free, a seed, with a viable life of no more than a few days to a few weeks, begins a desperate, and usually a hopeless, race for survival. It must land on moist alluvial soil and swiftly extend roots toward subsurface water. If the soil dries too quickly, the seedling dies. Given sufficient moisture, however, the seedling may put down roots three- to five-feet deep in the course of a summer. If it survives trampling, fire, flood and animal feeding, it will become a fast-growing tree, always heavily dependent on a reliable water supply.

But because of Rio Grande water management — dams and channels that hold back spring floods — and overgrazing and population growth, which reduce the water table, the tree is in peril.

As is often the case, a child’s innocent statement snaps us out of our disgruntled state. Instead of focusing on the work it’s taken to keep up with this one female tree, we should be sitting back and admiring her abundance. Surely a handful of her many, many seeds will make it to wet soil somewhere out there and go on to perpetuate that most characteristic feature of this Rio Grande Valley — the cottonwood.

Rio Grande Cottonwood Facts


  • Cottonwood trees are dioecious, meaning they have male and female flowers on separate trees. The female tree produces cotton, and the male tree (cotton-less) produces pollen.
  • The Cottonwood is a member of the Willow family and the poplar genus. The Rio Grande Cottonwood (populus deltoides) is a fast-growing tree; it is a variety of the Eastern Cottonwood, which is the fastest growing tree in North America.
  • The Rio Grande Cottonwood was often a welcome sight to travelers in the desert because it signaled the presence of water nearby.
  • These trees typically reach the height of 50-60 feet, although some of the grand old trees in the bosque (forest) are 90 feet tall, with trunks five feet in diameter.
  • Young cottonwoods take years to mature and flower, which is why some female cottonwoods can suddenly start producing cotton after years of no cotton production.
  • Some municipalities have ordinances against female cottonwoods, as the windborne cotton is viewed as a public nuisance.
  • The Southwest’s riparian forests — woodlands along banks of streams or rivers (what we call the bosque) —are now among the most threatened woodlands of North America.
  • Local carvers have traditionally used roots from the cottonwood that have been undercut and swept downriver to make their spiritual art (Pueblo Indians make kachina dolls and Hispanic santeros make bultos). As cottonwoods vanish, the carvers are forced to buy their wood.
  • In many communities along the Rio Grande, there is now an effort to plant and repopulate the cottonwood to ensure its survival, as it is part of our history and our culture. Time will tell whether these actions succeed.

The Rio Grande Cottonwood’s disappearance from the banks of Southwestern streams and rivers can now be regarded as a metaphor for our relentless abuse of the environment of the desert Southwest.

~Jay W. Sharp

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Wild Iris, Pecos Mountains, NM, photos © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

at nine thousand feet
they say the air is thinner
like breathing naked

-related to post haiku (one-a-day).

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