Water Closet for June 26, 2015
[pullquote]”The tree we admired was a great robust ball of dark green a hundred-feet in diameter poised above a sturdy trunk, sixteen-feet in circumference at waist height.”[/pullquote]Fred Rossi’s fine table, made from the wood of a late great Ipswich elm, now graces the Ipswich Town Library. It was dedicated to the library earlier this month. Last week, an old Streamer and his good wife who had long admired the live elm from which the table was made visited Ipswich’s fine library and viewed the round 3-ft. diameter work of art made of 18 pie shaped pieces of wood. Now they hope someone will make a simpler but much larger table, or wall display, from a cross sectional slice of the remaining saved trunk that will show two centuries of concentric annual rings.
In the table’s dedication brochure is the poem “Elm” by John Updike who as a close neighbor knew the great tree well. The last verse begins with these lines.
“Great shape, most godly
thing I know, don’t die.”
Like all Yankees Updike knew about the threat of disease hanging over our elms.
The following Water Closet essay about this elm was published a couple years after the Dutch elm disease had found it.
RECENTLY DEPARTED IPSWICH ELM (Water Closet 8/24/12)
Here in temperate climes trees lay down a yearly layer of wood made basically from water and carbon dioxide. The other day the old Closeteer returning from clamming on an Ipswich flat stopped at a recently cut American elm on the corner of East and County streets in Ipswich. He and his clamming buddies had been admiring this late great beauty for many years. Only a waist high, five-foot diameter, stump is left. He stopped to count the years clearly seen on most cross cut stumps because spring and summer growth differs. The no-growth period during the fall and winter makes a distinctive line between the smaller cells, hence denser wood, of summer and the larger cells of spring wood. The widths of concentric growth each year are called annual rings. He counted about 190 from the bark back to the administration of President James Monroe. Someone with similar interests had gotten there before him and labeled rings 1875 and 1850 with a black Sharpie. The closeteer’s count closely agreed with that of the unknown tallyman. He plans to return with plane to smooth rough places where the count was iffy, especially back between Monroe and Andrew Jackson when the fast growing sapling had wide rings not easily seen.
Maybe he’ll do what Aldo Leopold famously did in his classic Sand Country Almanac. Naturalist Leopold and helper leisurely cut down a large oak with a two man cross-cut saw, the kind the closeteer and his grandpa used. Leopold thought about the local history corresponding to the years as the saw teeth encountered them. With such a saw there is neither irritating noise nor noxious fumes. Talk or silence is easy from opposite sides of the tree. There seemed no hurry. Grandpa would now and then admonish his young partner when he day dreamed or pulled too hard. “Wake up.” or “Let the saw do the work.” And the saw if sharp did so quietly with a pleasant sawdusty whisper. There was plenty of time to think while going back through time. We closeteers imagine cutting the great Ipswich elm with a muscle powered cross-cut instead of a howling chain saw. The first layer of sap wood under the bark would be that grown in 2011. There was no growth this year. A few minutes later the wood formed during candidate Obama’s first presidential campaign would be encountered. Soon we’d be back to when President Clinton was being tried for impeachment by the House; and so on deeper in time. We’ll try to think of something positive when passing through 1973 to 1963 the years of the Viet Nam war.
Before continuing on this trip let’s return to the magnificent elm that caught so many peoples’ fancy, including author John Updike who lived across the street for awhile in the 1960s. Perhaps its graceful umbrella was a rendezvous for the careless Couples in his undistinguished novel by that name. Eight generations of more innocent couples probably stole kisses in its shade. The tree we admired was a great robust ball of dark green a hundred-feet in diameter poised above a sturdy trunk, sixteen-feet in circumference at waist height. Up until three years ago it was the picture of health. We thought it one of those immune survivors of Dutch elm disease that so devastated our towering, fountain shaped, beauties in mid last century. There are still a few big elms around; we’d call their shapes willowy if they weren’t elms. This one, also lovely in form, had gravitas; a Rubenesque stockiness that whistled and swayed violently in scores of nor’easters coming in across the salt marsh and up the nearby Ipswich River. Two years ago branches of its northeast quadrant suddenly turned brown. Last year the whole tree looked a bit peaked. In passing we worried out loud but took no action. This year it didn’t leaf out. It was condemned and then cut while human fans held an impromptu service singing goodbye. What were neighboring trees feeling?
Before returning to our imaginary two man cross-cut sawing some facts must be gathered from the corpse’s remains and Ipswich records. By the way over 99% of the trunk’s volume has been dead for some time, the center close to two centuries. The dividing cambium and a few flanking sheets of live cells below the dead furrowed, three inch thick, outer bark are but thin cylindrical layers of the trunk and branches. Only the outer few rings of sap wood, also dead, transport water up to the leaves. The inner rings of darker heartwood are made up of plugged plumbing, their function support. You’ve no doubt seen hollow trees that carry on just fine. The Closeteer fondly remembers a roadside elm in Salisbury in which four small kids waited for the school bus on blustery winter days. Its large opening faced south. That was in the early 1940s. Dutch elm disease had done it and neighbors in by the fifties. Hurricane Carol knocked it down. Disease came late to the Ipswich elm.
We’ll be back with more information on this witness to two centuries of activity on a busy main street to the town landing. Schooners on high tides used to bring coal and other cargo to Ipswich River banks where wagons were loaded then pulled by the tree. Until its cutting Ipswich Shellfish trucks laden with clammers’ harvests shook its roots. If the elm could speak there would be several volumes of history. We’ll listen carefully to its whispers as the imagined saw blade tears open year-thick pages.
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||March||April||May||June|
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches||4.65||4.53||4.06||3.95|
|2015 Central Watershed Actual||3.62||2.38||0.94||6.1 as of 6/23**|
Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For June 23, 2015 Normal . . . 22 CFS Current Rate . . . 70 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru May.
**Middleton Stream Team is source of actual precipitation data for June.
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584