Thanksgiving has arrived!
The cool season annuals are finally going out. As I put them in their places, Charlie Brown tunes pop into my head. We’re all feeling festive. Bill’s inflatable turkey sits outside bouncing in the breeze, delighted to be the focal point of a front yard instead of the dining table.
I’ve much to be thankful for this year—great family, great friends, Great Dixter.
Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is easy. The autumn weather has been gentle. The morning air is cool, but not too cold. ‘Carefree Sunshine’ rose is showing off outside my window. Riley Roo pup is growing like a weed.
Outside my patio, all is not so rosy. The news we hear from the world is dreary and bleak. Life is not as easy as it used to be. Not for us. Not for trees.
I think about trees more than I used to. Once upon a time, I was the tomboy who liked to climb them, cat nap in the cradle of their limbs, jump into great mountains of their leaves, and steal their apples before they were ready to give them up.
Do you think more of trees now that you are grown? Trees do resonate with people. You see them everywhere in art, religion, and advertising.
READERS NOTE: For the remainder of this Rant, critics of plant anthropomorphism may remain silent or not.
Trees are as alive as we are. Like us, trees need a healthy microbiome, adequate water, light, air, nutrition, and space to lay down roots and raise younglings. Like us, often trees are better when they live together. Trees have wild sex. Be glad they don’t brag.
We share countless vulnerabilities. Like people, trees can suffer from bad barbers, extreme weather, car wrecks, disease, pollution, overcrowding, and tragic violence.
The STRESS we share is a natural state of being for everyone and everything these days.
Perhaps a bit of STRESS makes us all better? When life molds us, layers us with lichen, maybe wears bits of us off now and again, might we then turn these small wounds into something more interesting and ever more precious? I believe so.
We have a tree in the family.
Binomial nomenclaturists know my tree as Maclura pomifera. Where Maclura pomifera first grew native, in North Texas and Southern Oklahoma, my tree is known as Bois d’arc (French for “wood of the bow”) or horse apple (brainy looking nasty tasting mulberry fruit that smells of orange) or hedge apple.
Whatever you call this stalwart member of the Mulberry family, you can’t help but admire a resilient specimen such as mine. My tree would be a national champion Maclura pomifera, if not for the fault of a split trunk. Not every tree gets a trophy.
The history of my tree is shrouded in mystery.
No one knows for certain how my tree came to be living in a Harrodsburg park designed by the famous Olmsted Brothers to honor Kentucky pioneers. Longtime locals swear the tree has been there since the late 1700s, well before the city was established in 1774.
This tree is revered. It is beloved. Old limbs are cut up and polished, and then the Chamber of Commerce sells coasters that are so popular they can allow just one per customer.
I asked a historian friend, Jerry Sampson, about my tree. For years, he’s heard stories about the old tree, with people talking about it as if it might be as old as the hills or Methuselah himself. He told me quite frankly that the origin stories I’d been brought up to believe just ain’t so. He can find no historical proof the tree was planted any earlier than around the turn of the century. The age of the tree has created conflict between people who focus on historical fact and other more romantic idealists still captured by the thrall of “moonlight and magnolia” fantasies.
Allen Bush, who appreciates both good stories and facts, knows my tree well. I’m sure he likes my tree better than the one that broke his Datsun. He wrote about that in a Rant of his own, where he also brought up the origin of the Old Osage Orange. From what Allen discovered, it could be that my tree is indeed very old, as much as 200 years and growing. That’s a long time, but still 50 years too soon for the Harrodsburg folk who would like to believe the tree came into being before the settlers built the Fort, that somehow it has always been there, an ever-present witness to the life and history of the community that grew up around the drip line. Sadly, it just ain’t so.
The tree’s not talking. We’ll never know exactly when it first sprang up. My gardener’s brain tells me the truth will land somewhere between Allen’s and Jerry’s estimates, though perhaps closer to Jerry’s number than Allen’s.
By the early 1900s, Maclura pomifera should have been easy to come by in an agricultural community like Harrodsburg. In the mid-1800s, Illinois College Professor James Turner brought the trees north to sell to farmers who could use them to lay down hedges around their land or make fences from the dense wood.
The Old Osage Tree remains a treasure. Even if it is a young 100 and a quarter, my tree has seen plenty of Harrodsburg history. It has hosted celebrations, both large and small. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and 60,000 supporters gathered around the tree while the president dedicated the newly made park to the honor of Kentucky pioneers.
Since then, thousands of people have tromped around the tree and shimmied up onto it to take pictures. The bark is smooth as furniture from all the butts that have sat on it. Every once in a while a state naturalist comes out to give the tree a fresh layer of mulch and an air spade treatment to break up compacted soil around the tree roots.
The life of the Old Osage Orange Tree spans at least five generations of my Harrodsburg family.
When I stand in front of my great-grandfather’s house and look up the hill toward Fort Harrod, I can see my tree.
When I was little, my Dad brought me to meet our tree. When Bill and I first married, I brought him. When our boys came along, we took them, too. One of my most valued possessions is a picture of our progeny climbing high above us on a burnished limb, grinning ear to ear as they came to know our family tree.
For Thanksgiving this year, why don’t we all go hug our trees?