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