A Yankee Notebook

October 26, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – In the 1930s we lived in a fourth-floor flat on a corner just three blocks from the giant chateau of the New York State Capitol. The nearest grass was the capitol lawn; from our high perch, there wasn’t a blade in sight.

There were two trees, though, growing out of rectangular holes in the sidewalk where pieces of slate had been removed. On the east side of the corner, an old elm reached all the way to our floor and scratched its fingers on the parlor windows when the wind blew. On the south grew a much smaller tree that my grandparents called a linden. Today we’d call it a basswood. My father dug out some of the dirt around it, and drove to the pine barrens west of the city (That name is different now, too; it’s called the Albany Pine Bush), where we filled a couple of cardboard boxes with beautiful yellow sand. Next day we kids had a perfect sandbox right outside the building. Great-Grandma Lange was our nanny. She started the day by combing through the sand for unwelcome deposits left by neighborhood dogs. Then she sat on a stool beside us reading The Knickerbocker News and maintaining order.

On Wednesdays she walked with us to Washington Park, only two blocks away, where we were surrounded by not only trees, but a regular arboretum – exotic species, as well as a few very strange specimens that Grandma said were regular saplings that had been dug up and replanted upside down. Weird as that sounds, I believe it to this day; they certainly looked it. On the way to and from the park in the fall we passed beneath a horse chestnut tree that rained a bonanza of nuts for everything from necklaces to slingshot ammunition to Popeye pipes. We also passed a gingko that dropped the worst-smelling little fruits that smushed on the sidewalk if you stepped on them. I often squirreled away a couple for future domestic warfare.

All that came back to me today as I thought how much trees have meant in our lives. Here in northern New England – whose early economic development was ignited by loggers after old-growth pine and spruce, followed by clearing for farms and sheep pasturage – we’re surrounded by a burgeoning forest that’s largely reclaimed the territory lost to settlement. We still log, and we’re all familiar with the sight of logging trucks going by; but we rely more and more on tourist money coming into our states, where the sugar maple is king. In the spring the tourists arrive by busloads for sugar shack visits, maple sugar soldiers, and maple creemees. This time of year, they come for the leaves, and still stop by the shacks for all things maple. Those of us who love the maples peer over our shoulders at the relentless march of warming and cross our fingers against the future.

I walk most afternoons these days in Montpelier’s Hubbard Park, a world different from Washington Park, but a gem of a place. Underfoot, as I walk, are all the leaves that make New England uniquely home: hard and soft maple, red oak, white ash, beech, birch, two popples, moose maple. I recall Robert Frost’s mentions of birches in his poems and reflect that he was writing during the beginnings of the great reforestation, and that birches are one of the first to spring up in the open pastures. Two generations later, I look down roads diverging in a russet wood of oak or maple. The birches, now shaded from the direct sun, peep shyly from behind them.

An ancient autograph book (Remember them? We used to hand them around to our friends for inscriptions.) advises me, “Go fishing by the big tree in the spring.”  The writer, then in the eighth grade and now a professor emeritus of chemistry, had hooked and lost a large brown trout among the roots of a partly undercut elm just upstream of a park in Syracuse. The next spring, after elaborate preparation, I sneaked up on the hole and caught the trout. The place was never as exciting after that. Now, I suppose, the elm is long gone, too, but its memory lives.

For years, near our hunting camp in the Adirondacks, a favorite spot to sit and watch for deer during drives just below on the mountain was called “the old beech log.”  It lay in a bed of moss, leaves, and wind-felled limbs beside the trail up Hopkins Mountain, and even the greenest of us could find it if he was sent there to watch. Last time I went there, it was completely rotted into the duff, barely discernible if you looked really hard. But though it’s gone, the place where it lay still bears its name, and will, as long as human memory of it lives.

I recently bought a grave plot in the Adirondack town where Mother and I lived shortly after we were married. It’s where we got our start, and it’s where I’ll end when it’s over. The trees and mountains there have a moist greenness to them that I’ve experienced nowhere else. The aroma and the feel of those woods are unique. In 1985, looking for a place to build a house, I stumbled across ten acres of woods with a cold-water swamp for sale in Etna, New Hampshire. For some reason, they spoke to me ineluctably. The county forester visited one day, looked around, sniffed, and said, “This place is kind of a mini-environment. Nearest thing to it I can think of is the Adirondacks.”  We don’t live there anymore, but the dream of those trees remains.

Right outside Mother’s office window at our home there stood a beech sapling, maybe twenty feet high. Like many beeches, it kept its copper leaves all winter, and dropped them in a circle on the snow only when spring had truly arrived. Winter is not Mother’s favorite season. She often looked out the window at those leaves quivering in the cold wind and said to herself, “If they can hang on, so can I.”  And so she has. If we can possibly swing it, I’ll get her back to her beloved Languedoc in March. While she luxuriates in Provençal sunshine and accents, I’ll hike the mountainsides again and pluck a tiny, strange Mediterranean oak leaf to tuck into my journal.

Photo by Willem lange