“Ascend to summer in the tree”
I thought of Eliot’s line from “Burnt Norton” while reading Nige’s elegy for elms, “those majestic, quietly dignified giants that used to dominate our countryside.” Ours, too. My childhood was more populated with trees than people, at least people whose company I would have voluntarily chosen, and trees were the occasion of my first sad and useful lesson in impermanence. Over several summers circa 1960, Dutch elm disease claimed most of the trees behind our house in suburban Cleveland.
Our backyard had been essentially a bower (from the Old English bur, “room, hut, dwelling, chamber”), an annex to the house, so dense was the foliage of the elms. Within years they were dead or dying and city crews sawed them down. One broad stump at the bottom of the hill – now a soft, mulchy spot – served as a love seat for me and the girl next door, literally – Karen Pirko, my first love. We sat there and told each other jokes. She and her family moved to Illinois in 1964, and I never saw her again. In “The Fallen Elm,” John Clare writes:
“Old favourite tree, thou'st seen time's changes lower,
Though change till now did never injure thee;
For time beheld thee as her sacred dower
And nature claimed thee her domestic tree.”
Clare’s “magnificent lyric,” as his biographer Jonathan Bate notes, is “at once elegy and protest poem.” His elms were stricken not with disease but human imbecility and greed—a neighbor committed “arborcide” for profit. Of course, Dutch elm disease (we called it Dutch elm “blight”) reached Ohio via human agency. The disease is a fungus spread by three species of elm bark beetle. It apparently arrived in the U.S. in 1928 in a shipment of lumber from the Netherlands, imported for use as veneer in a furniture factory in Ohio.
William Maxwell, a fellow Midwesterner, was born 44 years before me. In 1995, at age 86, he received the Gold Medal in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In his three-paragraph acceptance speech he said:
“I wish that I had written The Great Gatsby. I wish that I had written `In the Ravine’ and `Ward No. 6.’ I wish that I had written The House in Paris. I wish that I had written A Sportsman’s Notebook. But the novelist works with what life has given him. It was no small gift that I was allowed to lead my boyhood in a small town in Illinois where the elm trees cast a mixture of light and shade over the pavements. And also that, at a fairly early age, I was made aware of the fragility of human happiness.”