Monday, August 10, 2015

Grinnell's Trees...What Tales They Could Tell!

I know—trees don't talk, so how can they tell stories? I suppose that they can't—despite the curious abilities that J.R.R. Tolkien gave to trees in The Lord of the Rings Nevertheless, from time to time I find myself wondering about trees, especially long-lived trees: what have they witnessed? What might they tell us about what happened in their presence?  This question reminds me of the tree slice—an American elm that took root in Grinnell about 1885 and came down about 1990—on display in the foyer of the Noyce Science Center, the tree rings being coordinated with various moments in the college's history.
Cross-section of American elm on display in Noyce Science Center (2015 photo)
Nowadays, of course, trees have attracted special attention—from the public as well as from public officials—because of the arrival of the emerald ash borer, an invasive and destructive insect that has already done enormous damage to ash trees across the country.  According to a recent survey, about twenty percent of the trees growing along Grinnell's streets are ash trees, and experts expect that most—if not all—will succumb to the insect, decimating Grinnell's urban forest. The prospect of widespread tree damage calls to mind the last arboreal crisis, when in the 1970s Dutch elm disease destroyed the leafy arcade that Grinnell's elm trees had brought to almost every street in town.
Winter Scene: Elm Trees Over High Street (undated photograph from Henry Shoemaker Conard, Our Trees, ed. annotated by Larissa Mottl [Grinnell: Grinnell College, 2003], p. 12)
Of course, the reality is that, when J. B. Grinnell and the other pioneers arrived on the land that later became Grinnell, it was prairie—not forest—that greeted them.  Proof comes from the oft-cited diary of Johanna Harris Haines, who came to Grinnell as an eleven-year-old in 1855, not long after J. B. Grinnell  himself: "there was not a tree within three miles of Grinnell," she wrote.  "We could see for miles, and all my longings for vast open spaces were satisfied...."

Haines's longing for open vistas notwithstanding, the town's settlers understood the importance of establishing trees as soon as possible, and they succeeded, vigorously importing seeds with which to begin trees on the Iowa prairie.  In 1857, for example, Henderson Herrick planted elm seeds collected from George Washington's estate at Mount Vernon in front of the Kiesel house at 623 Broad. A bit later, Leonard Fletcher Parker planted Lombardy poplars and a row of "soft" maples along his property north of Sixth Avenue and west of East Street.  These and other efforts soon bore fruit, as trees quickly appeared along the streets of town and within individual yards and city parks.

The 1882 Cyclone, however, wrought havoc with this handiwork. When the super cell tore across the college campus and what was then the northern reaches of town, it left behind a dispiriting array of tree stumps and splinters, all that was left of mature—if not yet elderly—trees.
Photograph taken after 1882 Cyclone
For all its destructiveness, the Cyclone left much of Grinnell and its trees untouched. The surviving trees continued to grow, creating leafy roofs over many of the town's streets and homes. Residents of the town grew attached to their trees, and came to pay special attention to some of the most long-lived of them.

One consequence of this attachment to Grinnell's trees was Henry Shoemaker Conard's book, Our Trees, the second edition of which appeared in 1927. Intended as a guide with which to identify more than 100 species, the book also spoke proudly of the town's urban forest. According to Conard, if one then viewed Grinnell from the air (as it had recently become possible to do, thanks to the development of the airplane), one "scarcely sees the houses as he goes over [the city] on a summer day...You see only a beautiful grove"—so dramatically had trees altered the appearance of what had once been prairie.

Another paean to Grinnell's urban forest appeared in 1934, when Ada Park, member of the local chapter of the D.A.R., took photographs of nine remarkable trees in town.  Park and several collaborators later produced a small booklet that they called Historic Trees of Grinnell, supplementing Park's photographs with brief, hand-written statements about the origins and history of each of the trees they identified.  Predictably, most of the trees they selected for photography and comment were elms, like those in front of Amos Bixby's house at 1025 First Avenue, just east of the railroad.
Amos Bixby's Elms, 1025 First Avenue, Grinnell (1934)
Only one of the featured trees was not an elm—a "cucumber" (magnolia) tree adjacent to Lawrence House (today's Levi House, Fifth and Park).  Most of the "historic trees"—including the elms, of course—had had their start very close to the time of Grinnell's founding, and thus stood witness to the town's history. 

For decades Grinnell's elms continued to prosper, but the arrival of Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s  quickly eradicated the great bulk of the town's most elegant trees. Happily, even as the elms flourished, Grinnell's tree enthusiasts were wise enough to plant other tree varieties. For example, according to a 1944 article in The Scarlet and Black, in 1904 Grinnell College president Daniel Bradley arranged to have two gingko trees planted on campus. The pair grew quietly for forty years before giving evidence of successful fertilization: the stinky fruit that surrounds the gingko seed.
Stuart Roeder, "Ancient Oriental Gingko Will Blossom At Last," Scarlet and Black, November 3, 1944, p. 4.
In spite of the annual scourge, the offending tree—planted west of Magoun Hall (originally called Chicago Hall and later replaced by Roberts Theater)—continued to grow into old age, and was finally removed only in the 1980s.  That tree's twin, however, planted north of Blair Hall, but today standing adjacent to the east-west walk that runs north of Goodnow Hall, is still going strong, and has long since celebrated its centennial.
Gingko (Gingko biloba) on Grinnell College Central Campus (2015 photo)
Something similar might be said about the bald cypress that has for so long prospered in a most unexpected environment.  According to Henry Conard, Dan Bradley is also responsible for this titan, today growing adjacent to Roberts Theater on Park Street. Presently more than 45 inches in diameter, the cypress—which normally prospers in the swamps of the American South, often living in standing water—seems to have adapted to very different circumstances.  As Conard observed some ninety years ago, "here the thing grows, high and dry on the Iowa prairie. Impossible? Yes, but true."
Southern Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) adjacent to Roberts Auditorium (2015 photo)
Perhaps not quite as old, but certainly senior statesmen among Grinnell's trees, are the plane trees standing in the middle of the college campus. When Conard prepared Our Trees in the 1920s, he thought this cluster of plane trees (or sycamores, as some know them) already "splendid specimens," so it seems likely that by now they must be counted almost a century old. Certainly they display an imposing network of branches that reach perhaps one hundred feet above the sidewalk below.
Plane Trees on central campus, Grinnell College (photo 2015)
The college grounds may have provided unusual succour to these arboreal elders, but elsewhere in town numerous other trees have stood long and successfully without the kind of exceptional environment that the campus provides.

The several conifers standing behind Pine Tree House (1128 East Street), for example, have also probably reached the century mark by now. As Curtis Harnack wrote in a 1945 article in The Scarlet and Black, these trees were imported to Grinnell from New York by Mrs. E. G. Fellows, whose husband had had this house built in 1902. By the mid-1920s the Fellows had abandoned the house (it was donated to the college by their son, Jesse Fellows), which means that some of the conifers that still stand behind this building are also nearly 100 years old.
Curtis Harnack, "Under the Spreading Pine Tree Roof: An Interesting History," Scarlet and Black, Apr 13, 1945, p. 4
Similarly, when B. J. Ricker had Walter Burley Griffin design his home on north Broad Street, there were no trees in evidence. A photograph of the newly-completed house (ca. 1912) shows a barren landscape adjacent to the house. Yet, as Henry Conard pointed out in Our Trees, by the mid-1920s a "handsome specimen" of Douglas fir was prospering in Ricker's front yard, just north of the driveway. That tree—wounded seriously over the years as various broken branches confirm—was perhaps planted the year that the garage was added (1916), and therefore must be approaching its centennial (if it has not already reached it).
Ricker House (ca. 1912), National Library of Australia, pic-vn3603884a-s585-v
Ricker House Douglas Fir (photo 2015)
No doubt there are other trees throughout Grinnell that have long stood watch over the town's history. The tall cottonwood inside the north campus quad, for example, gives every appearance of old age, and may well have been planted about a century ago when the dormitories around it were built. The pin oak standing at the northeast corner of Broad and Eleventh also will soon celebrate its centennial.  Planted as a sapling in 1927 along with a twin (now gone) on the opposite side of the entrance to Merrill Park, this sturdy tree has long stood guard to Merrill Park.
Oak Tree, Merrill Park (2013 photo)
Grinnell's trees may not exercise all the abilities of Tolkien's Ents and their cousins, but they constitute an important part of the town's story.  They will not verbalize all that has taken place around them, but they certainly stand witness to what went before, and in that way help challenge our often limited imaginations about the past. Their presence reminds us how much they (and the people who planted and nurtured them) have changed the world that we so easily imagine to have been long unchanged.

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