Thursday, June 20, 2013

`The Dry Disease'

Another aged giant came down this week, a sycamore in Houston that stood 106 feet tall, with a circumference of 149 inches and a horizontal spread of eighty feet. It’s a familiar story, developer vs. tree, one that pits the rights of property owners against the unquantifiable rights of living things and their admirers. The equation will always remain unbalanced, with both sides getting agitated and inarticulate. (For an articulate voice, see Mike Gilleland on arboricide.) I feel a special empathy for sycamores. With their flaking bark and rawboned branches, they’re like awkward teenagers, pretty girls with acne. Robert A. Vines writes in Trees of East Texas (University of Texas Press, 1977): 

“The wood is used for crates, interior finishing, furniture, cooperage, rollers, butcher blocks, and tobacco boxes. It attains the largest size of any deciduous tree in the United States and is often planted for ornament. It is slow growing but long-lived, and old trees are often hollow with decay.” 

Sycamore is an inexact word referring to a fig tree native to the Middle East, a European species of maple (Love’s Labour’s Lost: “Under the cool shade of a sycamore / I thought to close mine eyes some half an hour”) and our North American plane tree or buttonwood of the genus Platanus. I associate it with cities but early settlers found great stands of sycamore in the Appalachians, and learned to associate them with rich bottomland and abundant water. In 1802, the French botanist François André Michaux found a sycamore on the bank of the Ohio River near Marietta that measured forty-seven feet in circumference. In his three-volume Histoire des arbres forestiers de l'Amérique septentrionale (1810–13), Michaux says the tree’s base was “swollen in an extraordinary manner.” 

In Flora and Fauna of the Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2010), Kelby Ouchley includes a passage from a letter written by Private Theodore F. Upson of the 100th Indiana Infantry Volunteers. It’s dated Nov. 24, 1864, after the Battle of Griswoldville: 

“We had no coffins, but I could not bear to think of putting my old friend into his grave in that way. I remembered that at a house a short distance away I had seen a gum or hollow sycamore log of about the right length and size. We got it, split it in halves, put one in the grave dug in the sandy soil, put his lifeless body in it, covered it with the other half, filled up the grave and by the light of a fire we had built with the rails, marked with a peice [sic] of lumber pencil his name, Company, and Regiment.” 

In “Poplar, Sycamore” (The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, 1947), Richard Wilbur divides his poem into two equal parts, each devoted to one of the title trees. Here’s the second half: 

“Sycamore, trawled by the tilt sun,
Still scrawl your trunk with tattered lights, and keep
The spotted toad upon your patchy bark,
Baffle the sight to sleep,
Be such a deep
Rapids of lacing light and dark,
My eye will never know the dry disease
Of thinking things no more than what he sees.” 

Wilbur’s final two lines read like a fine eulogy for the sycamore at the corner of Oxford and Twenty-Third streets. 

[Scott Joplin composed one of his rags, “The Sycamore,” in 1904.]

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