Day 219: A Toast To Dead Trees

originally published August 6, 2012

Growing up, there was a majestic tree in our backyard, the biggest in the neighborhood. It taught me how to climb, and it was featured often as part of the scenery in the simulated Endor-centric lightsaber battles with my friends. But I never named the thing.

There are 120 individual trees listed on Wikipedia. My first stop is the Australian Tree of Knowledge.

If you’re not a fan of the centre-left Australian Labour Party, you probably don’t care much about the Tree of Knowledge. Legend has it that a group of pissed off, striking sheep shearers met under the tree and founded the political party. They organized a blockade to hold back non-union workers who were arriving by train. I’d like to think the idea was to break off branches from the Tree of Knowledge and swat the non-union workers back onto the train. That’s how shit goes down in Australia, from what I’ve been told.

In 1991, it was discovered that someone (probably an ambitious and immoral right-winger) poisoned the Tree with Glyphosate, the primary ingredient for rounding up evil weeds in RoundUp brand herbicide. An arborist delivered the somber news in 2006 that the poisoning had been fatal – the tree was dead. A bounty was placed on the murderer’s head by the Australian Labour Party – $10,000 to anyone who brought the evil-doer to justice. Dead or alive. I’m sure the killer’s head would suffice.

Don’t worry – the tree has been cloned, so in some way this symbol of sheep-shearer rage will live on for the next generation.

This monstrous titan of greenery is Herbie, a long-time resident of Yarmouth, Maine. Tremendously long – Herbie dates back to 1793, and was considered the oldest and largest elm tree in all of New England. Yes, I said “was”. Like the Tree of Knowledge half a world away, Herbie has also passed on to wherever trees go after they die… tree heaven? Or maybe they just become coffins – more on that later.

Herbie’s demise was not an act of man-on-plant violence. Starting in 1957, the elms of Yarmouth began succumbing to Dutch Elm Disease, that fungussy little beetle-spread bastard. Herbie was not immune, and when a crew was sawing off some of the diseased limbs, a number of children implored them, “Don’t cut Herbie!” The name stuck.

In 2007 things were looking worse. The town’s supply of 739 elm trees had dwindled to twenty, and with the tell-tale stripes of imminent doom under his bark, it was clear his days were numbered. In January of 2010 Herbie met his fate with dignity, assuming it’s dignified to be chopped into pieces by a chainsaw.

Frank Knight, the town’s ‘Tree Warden’ who cared for Herbie for 50 years between 1956 and 2006, passed away in May of 2012. His coffin was secretly constructed out of genuine Herbie-wood. That’s both touching and a little bit creepy.

I was hoping to spend this kilograph hunting down interesting individual trees around the world, trees who have been deemed sufficiently valuable to someone to warrant a Wikipedia entry. Instead I appear to be eulogizing the dead. Now that I think about it, even that tree that grew in my backyard when I was a kid, the people who bought the house from my family hacked that one down. Shit. Okay, here’s another one.

Prometheus was a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (whose Latin name, pinus longaeva, would also be a great name for a Roman Empire-era porn star), which stood on Wheeler Peak in eastern Nevada. His demise comes to us courtesy of dendochronologists, the tree-ring science guys who appear to be elbowing their way into most of my articles lately.

In the 1950s, these scientists were looking for the oldest living tree species, possibly for science, possibly so they’d have something new to talk about at lunch. Donald R. Currey was taking samples from trees in the area, and felt he’d get more of the information he was looking for if he could grab an entire cross-section of a tree, rather than just core samples.

Why he picked that tree of all the trees in the area to chop down, no one really knows. Accounts vary: Currey may have broken off an instrument in the tree when he was trying to get a sample. He might have felt it was just one of many similar trees in the area, so who cares? Or he may have known the truth – that Prometheus was quite possibly the oldest individual tree on the planet.

Maybe Donald R. Currey just wanted this old tree to die.

Okay, probably not. And there are ‘clonal’ (or sprouting) organisms that are older, like an 80,000-year-old grove of aspen trees in Utah. But screw those trees, Prometheus was a single tree that stood like a dedicated sentry in the same spot for an estimated 4862 years. No other tree – no other organism – is believed to be that old.

And now it’s dead.

Okay, one more tree-bituary before I drown my coffee in whiskey just to make it through the day. That horse-chestnut tree which stood so proudly in Amsterdam was described in detail in Anne Frank’s diary. She could see it from the annex where she and her family were hiding. It warrants three mentions in the diary; it was visible from her favorite spot in the annex. It was the one glimmer of tranquil nature that could take her away from the horrors of everyday life while she hid from the Nazis.

Jesus. One day after I write an article about masturbating and I feel like I should be wearing a black band around my arm. The Anne Frank tree, which had become a famous landmark in the later 20th century, was battling a fungus and a moth infestation. It was slated to be hacked into sawdust in 2007, but a grassroots gang of tree lovers intervened and saved it.

On August 23, 2010, nature decided that she’d had enough of the tree, and unleashed her fury on Amsterdam in the guise of a windy storm. The tree was snapped apart about 3 feet from the ground. There was no saving the patient.

A number of saplings from the tree had been sent to various spots in the US in 2009, so in some way, the Anne Frank tree lives on.

And that’s the microscopic silver lining in this dark grey cloud of tree-death. Trees can live on beyond their station in the earth – through cloning, saplings, caskets, or as crucial examples in the field of science.

So I guess that’s something. But I still want that whiskey.

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