Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hedge Fund

As they say, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. Memories of things that once seemed important may fade while other seemingly trivial things can pop to the surface without warning. Sometimes, even something like a simple tree sighting can dust off old memories from the back of the mental bank vault.

Tagging along while my wife was at a conference in Burlington, Vermont this week, I was out on a solo bike ride, enjoying the Vermont countryside and searching for the University of Vermont's Jericho Research Forest. UVM was kind enough to let me live there for a few weeks back in 1976 while I was doing field work along the nearby Winooski River, but I haven't been back since. With the help of the web and a bike map I was able to locate the forest and the old house where I stayed. The house looked somewhat familiar, but I was amazed at how little I remembered about the area and the roads. I must have driven the approaching roads and up the dirt road to that house a few dozen times 32 years ago, and other than the house itself, nothing looked familiar. I reminded myself that a child born on the day I was last there could now be a fully-grown adult with kids of their own. I reflected on how pretty much all of my adult life has happened since those days.

But, wow, I was surprised about how little memory of the area I have. In fact, I have yet to see much of anything in the Burlington area that pops out as being familiar. I did locate the road I used to drive down to get to one of my research areas near St. Michaels College. I walked the bike down the steep gravel road toward the river. The mosquitoes were familiar enough, and reminded me how determined I was to get my work done to endure that misery, but I couldn't identify anything else from those days so long ago. That didn't surprise me as much as my Jericho visit, because 30+ years is a long time on a floodplain.

Anyway, I was nearing the end of my long, leisurely ride when my cell phone rang. It was my buddy from back home, so I walked the bike as we talked. I was on the sidewalk in an older modest Burlington neighborhood on the slopes above the old mill buildings situated on the river. I imagined mill workers lived there until the mills closed in the 1950's or so.

As I ducked under a small street tree in front of one of the houses, I came to a stop. I recognized it as a maple, and it looked a little like the ubiquitous Norway maple (Acer platanoides), but in miniature. The leaves were smaller than those of a Norway maple and three-lobed rather than five. The wings of the seed-bearing samaras stuck out at a 180-degree angle from each other. The bark was distinctive with plates that break up in a way that makes it look corky.

This was a hedge maple (Acer campestre) and there were a few along the same street. It is a small European tree that is common in British hedgerows - hence the name. In America it has been planted as an ornamental, but like the Norway maple, it can escape and seed itself. I've only encountered this species in a few places, but I'll never forget it. Now, I'm not generally a big fan of escaped non-native species, but forgive me if I make an exception for this one case.

When I was a kid on Long Island in New York, there was an entire stand of these trees in our side yard. The soil and climate there must have been especially favorable for this species. Hedge maple is a small tree, growing to only 30 or so feet tall, so the scale of the tree and the forest it can create is just the right size for children. Growing in the open, it tends to be a shrubby, multi-stemmed tree, but growing close together in a stand it can grow reasonably straight. The trees cast a dense shade and little else grows in the understory so, to a small person, the woods seem dark, cool and mossy.

When I was very young, this was “the woods.” I spent hours there exploring and playing. I pitched my old canvas pup tent there. My father built a fish pond on the edge of this miniature forest and there I watched with glee as toads trilled in the springtime. It's where childhood friend David taught me an early lesson about violence by brazenly splitting my scalp open with a rock. My father built a tree house for me there and it's where, inspired by a similar event at the New York World's Fair in about 1965, friend Ricky and I buried a time capsule made from a coffee can. It's where I learned an early lesson about how trees grow. When very young, I stapled little pulleys to two trees and ran a string between them creating a miniature cable car, or something. Years later, I found the staples with the trees growing around them, still only a couple of feet off the ground where I had hammered them, teaching me that trees grew from the tips rather than the roots.

These trees were an every-day part of my life, but I didn't know what they were. I collected the leaves as part of my seventh grade biology project. My mother called them “swamp maples.” I couldn't find the species in any of the tree books I had, so that's what I called it. My teacher told me that was wrong, but didn't tell me what it was. It wasn't until the late 1970's as a graduate student visiting an arboretum in Connecticut that I was thrilled to see the tree and learn its identity as hedge maple. Other than a few visits back home over the past few decades, I'm not sure I've seen this tree anywhere else. It's a pretty nondescript little tree and easy to miss.

I’d like to go back to Cocks Lane in Locust Valley one more time to see my little trees, but I fear what I might find. The last time I drove by there, in about 2002, I was saddened to see how much the neighborhood had changed. A couple of small houses – including the fist house I had lived in, one my father had built in 1950 - had been bulldozed to cram in six mini-mansions. My trees were still there next to another house my father built behind the first and where I lived until I was about 13. I stopped to say hello. They were looking a little cramped and put-upon, but they were still there. I'd like to go back again one more time now that these deeper memories have been reawakened, but maybe some things are better kept as memories.

Please Note: Another post about my trip to Vermont can be found on the Moose Hill Notebook.

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At 10:05 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

I'd love a picture of your hedge maple - I'll have to google it see what you're talking about.

There's a particular type of maple my DH calls a *swamp* maple also - I wonder if it's the same?

It seems like you began in your love of trees at an early age - nice that you still carry those memories with you.

Special trees for me as a kid were Weeping Willows and Sycamores; the willow for a swing and the sycamores for climbing.

At 7:42 AM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Laura, I think the red maple - probably the most common maple in the Northeast - is known as 'swamp maple' because that's one of the many places it grows. Didn't you have a photo of red maple seeds on your blog a while back? Sliver maple also comes to mind as 'swamp maple' but a quick online search doesn't support that recollection.

I didn't get a photo of the hedge maple in Burlington. I was thinking about going back, but climbed Camel's Hump instead. I'd like to visit the stand of them at my old house but my parents are gone and I have no real reason to go back anymore.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger robin andrea said...

Interesting the way memory works. A place that barely registered as familiar set off a wonderful stroll down a memory path of hedge maples. I'm going to google hedge maple too. I'd love to see this evocative tree.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger CabinWriter-- said...

One reasoning behind blogs is the ability to record memories. Your recollection of towns and places from earlier years helps future generations read about areas uncluttered by rows of jammed houses taking up precious greenspace. Even some of our forests are getting hacked!

At 4:13 PM, Blogger wtgelfman said...

I loved this piece. I still remember the trees in the front yard of my Virginia home - a dogwood and a saucer magnolia. Like you, when I see these trees, I'm reminded of when I was little. I'm glad that the trees you visited still survive. It gives one hope of some kind of continuity- Sue G.


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