Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tree Nuts

Fall, 2011

I arrive at the college parking lot early on a Saturday morning, and already the chartered bus is nearly full, my fellow travelers sipping steaming coffee and munching muffins, waiting for the show to get on the road. I sink down into my seat, anticipating a day of private pleasure. I’ve left the kids at home with my husband.

“I’m an Ed Richardson groupie,” says a woman several seats ahead of me. It’s an apt description. We are a bus full of Ed Richardson groupies.

Pulling up at Green Cemetery in Glastonbury, we make our way outside, gathering around the man with the bullhorn standing in front of a weeping mulberry. Once we’re assembled, he raises the bullhorn and begins to talk about cultivars, about weeping and grafting. The grey sky overhead ekes out a smattering of drops, but no one pays attention.

“Why are there so many weeping trees at cemeteries?” someone asks.

“Well, I guess because weeping and cemeteries go together,” the man with the bullhorn says wryly.

Laughing, we follow him to the next tree. He is our guide, Ed Richardson, an unassuming person, a retired insurance man, a sprightly octogenarian. Only his quavering hand on the bullhorn, his quiet voice that occasionally fades out betray his age. Wry and thoughtful, he is a plainspoken man who cares about trees. Not an arborist or botanist or horticulturalist, Ed Richardson is a self-made expert on notable trees, a self-proclaimed tree nut. And we are his converts, a bus full of them. We follow and we listen, learning the ways of a tree nut, learning how to pay attention to trees.

I once told an acquaintance about going on the tree tour.

“You did what?” she said. She’s my peer—but only in the sense that we’re the same age and have children of the same age.

“I rode around in a bus all day looking at trees,” I explained, but I could see in her eyes that she didn’t really get it, that she didn’t really want to get it. She changed the subject to preschools, and I didn’t breathe another word about trees.

It’s like my writing: a private pleasure. My way of engaging with the world. Looking at trees. Writing things down. I could do worse.

I’m a newcomer to Connecticut, this crumb of a New England state that I could barely locate on the map before moving here the year before. I’ve been a newcomer to so many places that I’ve grown weary of learning the towns and the attractions, of meeting people and learning their names. And then leaving. This time, I am meeting the trees—some of the state’s oldest inhabitants, and the ones most likely to stick around awhile. My mental map of Connecticut is now bristled over in trees, growing denser and more varied the more I encounter. Ed Richardson, lifetime resident of the state, is helping me to populate my map with trees.

To know trees as well as people makes for a good life. A balanced life. Sometimes, I confess, I prefer the trees.

“When you’re looking for big trees, you’re not looking out in the forests,” Ed Richardson says. “The forests of Connecticut have been cut over many times. You’re looking for owners who had the money to maintain trees.” In other words, you’re looking at the grounds of colleges, hospitals, cemeteries, parks, and private estates.

American Forests, headquartered in Washington, DC, maintains the National Register of Big Trees, and state organizations, like Connecticut’s Notable Trees Project, keep their own statewide lists. Since his retirement from the insurance industry in the mid-1980s, Ed Richardson has catalogued and measured a great many of Connecticut’s notable trees. A champion tree is identified based on a formula:

Trunk Circumference (inches) + Height (feet) + ¼ Average Crown Spread (feet) = Total Points

When two trees of the same species come within five points of one another, they are declared co-champions. Of course, measuring, recording, and cataloging are just one way to know the world. Ed Richardson knows trees in other ways, too.

He knows that trees have stories. And he knows how to tell those stories. Listeners stand spellbound as he describes “the most spectacular discovery of the tree world in the twentieth century”: the dawn redwood, believed to be extinct, found growing in China in 1943. He tells of his encounters with Hackberry Jim, a colorful character with a passion for finding hackberry emperor butterflies in their native habitat. He traces the provenance of a particular white oak, planted in 1911, identifying it as the grandchild of the Charter Oak, the legendary tree that in colonial times served as the hiding place for Connecticut’s constitutional charter.

The tour stops at a vineyard in Colchester for lunch, a wine tasting, and a tour of the property with an eye to the trees. Several large trees grow along an old stone wall, and we walk to get a better look, going past an unassuming birch growing at the edge of a small pond. Most of us trudge right past the shaggy, multi-trunked tree without giving it a second glance, because most of us don’t know how to see. But Ed Richardson, bringing up the rear, stops at the tree, his trained eye locking on it, seeing something extraordinary.

Eventually we’re all herded back to the birch, a sense of expectancy suddenly permeating the proceedings. A discovery has been made. We wait for Ed Richardson to speak, and finally he does, announcing that the tree—a gray birch—is most likely the new state champion and even possibly a new national champion. Cheers sound all around. Ed Richardson adds a disclaimer: He’s only eyeballing it, and the tree will have to be measured properly. But it’s enough for us. People pose for pictures in front of the new champion tree, still rather scraggly and unkempt looking, but a tree that I’ve already plotted on my mental map.

We’re promised that once an official measurement is made, we’ll receive news of the gray birch’s status in an email.

Actually, if you pressed me, I’d have to admit that I’ve been on six Ed Richardson tours: two all-day affairs by chartered bus, and four smaller ones at a public park, a cemetery, and a private garden. Whenever I see notice that Ed Richardson will be somewhere talking about trees, I make it my prerogative to be there.

Shagbark hickory. Tulip tree. Arborvitae. Dawn redwood. Hackberry. Shingle oak. Weeping beech. Kentucky coffee tree. Sweetgum. Silver linden. Sycamore. Mono maple. Lee’s hybrid oak. Old man’s beard. Cucumber magnolia. Speckled alder. Chinese chestnut. Catalpa. Stewartia. Flowering dogwood. The lists of trees fill my pocket-sized notebooks, a litany of beings I’d like to get to know.

“This here,” says Ed Richardson, “is a Japanese threadleaf maple.”

We draw nearer the bullhorn and wait for more.

The email comes a couple of weeks after the tour. 

The gray birch has measured 157 points, making it a new state champion. The current national champion, at 156 points, is located in New Jersey. Last measured in 2007, the New Jersey tree will likely be re-measured, and if it comes in within five points of the Connecticut tree, the two trees will be listed as co-champions on the national register. The updated list of national champions won’t be available until the spring, and it’s only fall. For the time being, the national status of our Connecticut gray birch is in limbo. That’s Ed Richardson’s word: limbo.

And so we tree nuts wait in limbo, while the gray birch lives on, free of such uncertainty, invested in its girth and height and spread far beyond any of our capacities to measure or record.

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