Pop planted the American Elm tree in the front meadow, next to the curved edge of the corn field, so he could see it as he sat in the front porch swing. He planted it as a memorial to Mom who loved trees as much as he did. He planted it because he remembered when the street where he learned to walk in Wilmington DE and the central campus of the University of Delaware, where he went to college, were lined with the magnificent arches of the trees overhead.
Pop loved trees. Due to his good husbandry of the farm’s 50 acres of woods, the whole farm had been designated an American Tree Farm. We had spent many hours in our childhood planting unusual trees as Pop experimented with different varieties.
Pop also loved a good view. He often planted trees strategically to block out ugly buildings on neighboring farms. A Deodor cedar almost hid the pretentious columns added when the Frock family put a second story on their house. An English Walnut hid the doublewide Jimmy Yale’s farmhand had moved in on the edge of his farm.
But Mom’s Elm was his favorite tree on the farm. Pop was one of the original members of the American Elm Society that supported research to see if a cure for the devastation of Dutch Elm Disease that wiped out the trees in the 1950s and ‘60s could be found. He was proud that he was keeping one alive.
The Elm he planted for Mom was a beauty, a rare healthy American Elm that loved its featured spot in the middle of the best view on our 170-acre Maryland dairy farm. It grew tall and spread its strong limbs 40-feet wide. The heifers found shade under its dark green canopy, robins and wrens raised their young high inside. One 4th of July, a cow had her calf under the tree’s protective cover.
Pop learned all he could about how to keep the tree safe from the dreaded fungal disease. He mowed the grass underneath, and carefully trimmed the bottom branches so they wouldn’t touch the ground or the grass. He cleaned fallen branches out from under and eventually put a fence up around it so the cows wouldn’t make the ground too hard by their weight and constant stamping away flies.
The tree grew into its role as a sacred place. It quietly became the focal point, the first thing we looked for as we came to visit Pop from our new home in North Carolina. We loved seeing it gently change to orange-yellow in the fall, and its skeleton black and white curve on the winter horizon. Each spring we looked for the first sign of leaves to make sure it was still healthy. We sat in the porch swing with Pop and admired it.
Pop died last June at 94. Two years earlier he had successfully sold the developmental rights to the state of Maryland so the farm would always remain open space. He had willed his body to be used for science. My sister and I agreed that we would return to spread his ashes under the Elm this Fall.
We sold the farm to the neighboring Amish family. Two of their daughters had married brothers from another Amish family. We were pleased and we thought Pop would be happy with their plan to turn the farm back into the working dairy farm it was when we were growing up. Pop had talked often with David, the Amish father, about the importance of the trees in preventing soil erosion, providing shade and protection for wildlife. We’d told David about the sacred properties of the Elm as we signed the deeds of sale.
But this week, on the first anniversary of Pop’s passing, we learned from friends who have driven by the farm, that the Elm is no longer standing. Few of the old and unusual trees are. The Amish have cut them down, piled them up and burned them. Apparently, their six-mule teams cannot as easily maneuver around big old trees in the middle of fields as modern tractors can. Big old trees, even sacred ones, are not practical when the field needs tilling in straight rows.
We will have to find another place for Pop’s ashes. We hope Pop and Mom are sitting somewhere on a different porch swing looking at other trees. We hope they know how sorry we are.
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