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Poetry Prose and Other Words

by Ken Ingham

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The McDonough Maple

The Sugar Maple lived at the northwest corner of Montrose and Waverly in Garrett Park Maryland where some of its massive remains can still be viewed. That’s what I’m doing here now, on an early April morning, measuring, counting rings, reminiscing, wondering if the current occupants of the McDonough house are as sad as I. The McDonoughs left town a decade ago but in Garrett Park it takes a long time for a house to change its name. It’s too bad more trees don’t acquire names. I shall dub this one, posthumously, the McDonough Maple.

If any of the eight McDonough children should return to Garrett Park they might not recognize their home without this tree, which shaded a large portion of the yard where they grew up and softened the glare of the streetlight in their bedrooms. I can empathize. My first home in Detroit lost much of its charm when, shortly after I went away to college, two large trees out front succumbed to the virulent and wide spread Dutch Elm disease. Now, the McDonough Maple has succumbed to a different plague, one whose vectors infect municipal officials with a fungal fear of falling branches and rising insurance premiums. Its trunk has been expertly sliced into eight or ten magnificent slabs about 18 inches thick. Some rest flat on the ground, others stand on edge, their fresh-shaven faces beaming with concentric smiles of annual growth. I counted carefully, marking off the cambium layers in groups with a felt pen. Four times twenty-five plus two more makes a total of 102 rings! This tree was born in 1898, the same year Garrett Park was incorporated; it died in the wake of our centennial celebration.

The abundance of large trees is what people notice first about this small town, nestled between Rockville, Bethesda and Kensington, just outside the Capital Beltway. My own first visit was on a warm day in May, 1972, while looking for a house I’d seen advertised for rent on Rokeby Avenue. Approaching from the north I came to a point where I could proceed no further unless it be on foot across a little bridge that led into a place where the houses and trees were older and more varied. An anxious checking of the map confirmed that the house I was looking for must be in the second block beyond that bridge. My heart beat quickened as I walked up a long gentle hill, all the while sheltered from direct sunlight by a high canopy of tulip poplar, and several kinds of oak and maple with flowering dogwoods down below. By the time I reached my destination I was ecstatic over the possibility that my young family and I might soon reside in the middle of a forest that seemed almost as dense as the one where Hansel and Gretel strayed. I rented that house without ever stepping inside. Three years later it was ours and today it is known by some as the Ingham house.

What I remember most about the McDonough Maple are those sunny October afternoons when a stroll around town inevitably brought me to this corner where to pause beneath its branches was like taking a shower in orange light. Oh to stand once more amidst its fallen and falling leaves, to throw my head back and drink of that soft brilliance, a color so intense that I wanted to splash it on my face, to get naked and drench my whole body with its incidence. Instead, now, I sit on this stump and try, like a paleontologist, to reconstruct a mental image of this tree. The exercise reminds me of a sketch I saw in the Washington Post of a tiny anthropoid named Eosimias, thought possibly to be our ancestor? Its cute likeness was conjured up from a few ancient heel and ankle bones. Fortunately I have more to work with. The main trunk of the McDonough Maple, fourty-four inches in diameter, jutted straight up to a height of fifteen feet or more and then diverged into several smaller trunks, also cut into pieces and strewn about. Some of these smaller ones have cracks through their heart or hollow sections that have decayed, the kind of defect detected by the soundings of woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds who rely on them for shelter and as sources of insects for food. But those imperfections are also discerned by the sophisticated eye of the professional arborist who invariably recommends that such branches, and frequently the entire tree, be removed as a public safety hazzard, a liability.

Exceptions do exist. Take the Wye Oak as an extreme example. Located in Wye Mills near the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, this national champion is thought to be the largest White Oak in the United States. It is at least 460 years old. In 1939, after surviving a long list of owners, the land on which it stood was purchased by the state of Maryland and converted into what may be the smallest State Park in the country. People from all over the world pause at the wide-spreading Wye Oak to witness an example of what a tree can become. Numerous steel cables have been installed to connect its limbs and stabilize them against high winds. One limb was so large that when it finally fell in spite of all the prosthetics, its main section became the medium to sculpt a larger than life-sized image of two children leaning over a shovel in the act of planting a seedling. The sculpture is on display in the Tawse Building, headquarters for the Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis.

The Wye Oak was expected to die naturally a few years ago after putting out an exceptional crop of acorns as oaks sometimes do in their final year. One of those acorns produced a seedling that my wife bought as a gift to me. It now stands almost five feet tall in our back yard. Whenever I’m in the vicinity of routes US50 and MD404, on my way to the beach for example, if I can’t spare ten minutes for a side trip to pay my respects to my young oak’s progenitor, I know its time to slow down my life. I hope the Wye Oak outlives me and when it finally does die that it will be allowed to stand as long as it can, gradually dropping its limbs, finally falling of its own accord. And what about Wye Oak Junior? How many centuries will it live? Will future occupants of the Ingham house eventually cave in to a fear of its branches falling on their own or a litigious neighbor’s house?

I don’t deny that high winds could have broken a heavy limb from the McDonough Maple or even caused the entire tree to come crashing down on one of someone’s several cars. It happens. And those rotten spots, if they extended far enough, could have attracted lightning by providing a moist conduit all the way to the ground. But autopsy shows little evidence of rot in the main trunk; a skillful pruning combined with a cable or two could have minimized the hazard and extended the life of this venerable tree. And if Montrose Avenue had to be slightly detoured to accommodate its growth, so what? Can you imagine a more elegant and effective alernative to speed bumps?

Too late now. The smaller pieces have already been scavenged, for use as fire wood, or converted to chips for citizens to spread around their ornamentals. Not even the saw dust remains; it was vacuumed up the very first day as part of the deal. The chunks that are left are too heavy for a person to lift; they will have to be split in place or hauled away with heavy equipment, like pieces of trash, the sooner the better according to some. The stump was cut close to the ground to hasten our forgetting; it will probably be planted over with Hostas and gradually decompose. Soon there will be no visible evidence of this tree’s existence other than the expanded hole in the canopy. The arboretum committee may authorize the planting of another tree in this same location.

But I wish they would let the remaining pieces lie where they are as an exhibit, a statement that in this town not all of nature need be coerced into preconceived patterns by human hands, that beautiful things can be allowed to happen on their own. Let the Earth Goddess, Gaia, become manifest in the collective action of her ants, termites, worms, mushrooms and microorganisms. Let those concentric smiles gradually fade into hillocks of soil, the Mounds of McDonough, a little piece of quasi-wilderness right here in downtown Garrett Park where future strollers can pause to ponder the life and legacy of this tree and the forces that brought it down.

This essay first appeared
in the Spring/Summer 2002 issue
of Potomac Review