Sunday, September 30, 2012

How to Tell a Story

Fall, 2012

I'm with a group of about sixty tree nuts at historic Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, and Ed Richardson is leading us around, pointing out magnificent specimens and describing how he inventoried approximately 1,800 big trees on the cemetery grounds. After completing his inventory, he tells us, his project was written up in the Hartford Courant, and a former Cedar Hill groundskeeper called him up to talk about his work. Facing his audience and speaking into a small microphone, Ed Richardson launches into the meat of his story.

So this guy, this former groundskeeper, said, “What about that weirdo hemlock on section 16?”

“Weirdo hemlock?” I said. “I’m not sure about that. Is this a grave tree or a big tree?”

“A grave tree.”

“I didn’t inventory the grave trees,” I told him.

Ed Richardson briefly explains the difference. Cedar Hill, designed by landscape architect Jacob Weidenmann in the 1860s as a rural cemetery, features park-like common areas landscaped with large trees, while the family-owned plots have smaller shrubs and trees planted near individual graves. In his inventory, Ed Richardson had focused on the large trees.

“Well, you ought to go look at it,” he said.

“Is it a dwarf?” I asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“Well,” I said. “I don’t know anything about dwarf trees. I’m a big tree guy.”

They talked about it some more, he tells us as he leads us among the graves. Even though I’ve heard this story three times on three different tours, I still can’t get enough of it. I hang on every word.

“I’ll go take a look at this dwarf tree you’re talking about,” I said. “But I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

Well, I looked at it, and I thought, this is a weirdo alright. It had little short needles coming right out of the trunk and branches. Looked like an evergreen cactus.


I was able to find one cone. He holds up a finger. It was an Eastern hemlock cone. So I thought it might be a cultivar.

He takes us a bit further, and we all stay close, waiting to catch his words. He describes going home and looking in his four-volume encyclopedia of trees, translated from German, and finding a list of around seventy-five cultivars of the Eastern hemlock, each with a dense paragraph of description.

This is hopeless, I thought, but I just kept reading. And then about halfway through, I came to a paragraph and thought, man, that’s it on the nose. I kept reading, and at the end of the paragraph, I came to a sentence that said, “This is the Huss hemlock propagated by John Francis Huss of Hartford, Connecticut, around 1902.”

We arrive at our destination. Ed Richardson points at a monument flanked by two slender hemlocks. He hits the climax of his story:

The name on the monument was Huss.


There are murmurs of surprise and delight as his listeners stand looking at the stone and its guardian trees. After the story has had its full impact, Ed Richardson goes on to explain that Huss had been a groundskeeper at Hartford’s Goodwin mansion at the end of the nineteenth century. He doesn’t know how old the trees are, he continues; they may date back to Huss’s death in 1925 or even earlier.

I read the names on the monument and come up with my own narrative. Huss had two wives who predeceased him: Rosalie Mouillerat, who died in 1907, and Helen E. Hamilton, who died in 1909. So I imagine that John Huss himself planted those two trees, his own cultivar, one for each of his loves.

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