Above: The magnificent birch embracing the house, summer 2021. All photos (check out the gallery at the end of the story) used by permission of Laura Sullivan
By Laura Sullivan
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
– Joyce Kilmer, 1913
As my mother recalled, sometime back in the 1930s, the town held an Arbor Day observance in front of the Kent County Courthouse (now our Town Hall). Included in the ceremonies was Joyce Kilmer’s iconic “Trees” poem, set to music, and sung by a coloratura soprano. Up on Peirce Street, behind the Courthouse, some young urchins were heard, mimicking and warbling the singer’s solo: “I think that I shall never seeeee….a poem lovely as a treeee….”
East Greenwich was known for its many trees, including, and especially, the elm trees which lined Main Street and the street above, aptly named Elm Street, before its renaming of Peirce Street, in honor of Daniel Peirce, who gave his family’s property over to the Town to erect the Library. Back in the day (as they say), these and many other streets were lined with majestic elms, which created beautiful canopies that provided shade and leafy grace. The Hurricane of 1938, along with Dutch Elm disease, took many of those trees away, leaving only a smattering of stately elms, now under the town’s watch, as Time takes its toll.
Further down Peirce Street from the library, our homestead claimed not an elm, but a lovely birch tree in the backyard. Presumably planted around the time the house was built (1894), the birch grew from a slender sapling to a mighty sentinel, spanning three centuries, and overseeing decades of events, and generations of family members, as they went about their daily comings and goings beneath its branches.
Unlike the trees that starred in Robert Frost’s iconic poem, “Birches,” our birch tree was not of the variety that allowed youthful aerial flight. Its sturdy trunk split into four sections about 10 feet off the ground, which, in turn, divided even more, resulting in a grand canopy that shaded the backyard, the driveway and the house. As it grew, it became an often-admired feature of the property, a home and passageway for birds, squirrels, raccoons, opossums and probably a few cats. My grandparents ensured that it received proper professional attention, so for many years it was under the care of arborist Garnet McKay, who proclaimed it as his favorite tree. Per his recommendation, the heaviest upper boughs were cabled together, and even a lightning rod was installed so that it would not suffer a hit during a thunderstorm.
As lovely as it was, the birch was messy, dropping its catkins in early spring, which covered the ground and found their way into the most unlikely places – usually our cars, parked beneath. Months later, the catkins would be found under the hood, and in the door cracks. Furthermore, over the summer, small twigs would fall off the tree, necessitating a sweep of the pavement, or some raking in the garden beds. In the fall, the birch was among the first to turn its leaves a sunny yellow, which subsequently tumbled to the ground – a golden blanket. Come winter, its branches would welcome a soft draping of snow, or stand sturdily against the cold winds, protected by the barn and the house. Yes, it withstood the Great Hurricane of 1938 (as other trees fell), Hurricanes Carol, Bob, and Sandy, and the January ice storm and Great Blizzard of 1978, among other weather challenges.
The photo albums of my grandmother, our own prints and more recent digital images include countless pictures of the birch, whether intentionally captured, or photobombing another primary subject. Clearly, it had its own presence and personality.
Over more recent years, our mighty birch tree showed signs of disease and decline, as darker markings appeared in the trunk, and holes opened up in the upper branches, showing signs of rot, insect assaults and nesting animals. Still, the tree presented its yearly cycle of catkins, leaves and fall foliage, and stood steadfastly against the varying weather. Viewed from our courtyard, its long branches seemed to stretch out and embrace the house, as the trunk tilted back in joyful exuberance. The tree and the house were of one spirit.
However, after a few days of especially windy weather, our faithful birch tree gave way on the morning of Mother’s Day last year. From the kitchen, I heard a strange groaning/whooshing sound, and looked out the window to see the southern half of the tree split from the trunk, falling over the driveway, and crashing onto the border fence. Miraculously, it missed both of our cars by inches, but crushed the large forsythia bush, and brushed the side of the neighbor’s house. I screamed as our cat fled from the room. Happy Mother’s Day.
The fallen section was cut up and removed the following day, as we pondered the fate of the remaining half. A small cedar tree, which had taken root in the tree’s crotch, was carefully removed and safely planted in the yard. The arborist, likely sensing my reluctance to scuttle the remaining section, suggested trimming it back later in the summer and hoping for the best. It really wasn’t pretty, but, envisioning a tall and whimsical planter, I propped a ladder against the trunk and plopped some English ivy, pothos and a mandevilla plant into the hollow.
Fast forward a month later. A morning thunderstorm brought strong southwestern winds whipping up Liberty Street, hitting the tree on its wounded side. I came out on the back porch and noted a long vertical crack in the trunk. Furthermore, the tree was swaying. Oh dear. Minutes later, I watched from the kitchen window as the tree came down, crashing on the courtyard. This time, the umbrella table, two chairs, a planter, wicker loveseat and the birdbath paid the price. In addition, on its way down, the branches scraped the front of the barn, pulling away the corner of the gutter. Birds and squirrels, and even a rabbit, seemingly disturbed, flocked around and perched on the fallen sentinel. The birch tree’s era was over.
Once the branches were cut up and removed, and the mess cleaned up, the remaining 8 feet or so of the trunk was sawed away, leaving only the stump, a good four feet in diameter. New furniture for the courtyard was obtained, the barn was later repaired, and the post-birch era was underway. It was interesting to see how nature responded to the tree’s departure. For instance, the small Andromeda bush that had snuggled up to the birch sprouted new growth and height. Later in the summer, a mysterious vine appeared around the stump, later producing small white pumpkins. Of course, poison ivy thrived in the additional sun, as well.
For us, the loss of the tree also meant the loss of shade, as the relentless glare of the midday sun lessened the pleasure of enjoying the courtyard and working in the garden. The whole perspective of the yard changed. Like an amputee who still senses his lost limb, there remained a spirit, and a presence, in the empty space, where the birch had once stretched its branches to Heaven.
I placed a large round basket on the wounded stump, filling it with plants over the summer and fall. As the vegetation around it thrived, the stump continued to deteriorate. So now, almost a year later, the stump will be ground out, after the Andromeda is removed and transplanted. And out of loss and endings come new life and possibilities. Another tree, most likely. A number of varieties are being considered on this Arbor Day. Perhaps a less-messy and high-maintenance tree. In the short term, we know we won’t regain the lovely shaded canopy. Ideally, the choice will be another legacy tree for future generations that will be treasured as much as its predecessor. We’ll see.
To paraphrase the final line from that Frost poem: “One could do worse than be a lover of birches.”
Laura Sullivan lives in East Greenwich, in her mother’s childhood home.