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Friday, July 15, 2011

The Elms of Penn State

Back in forestry school we learned about the history of a tree that is slowly but surely vanishing from the American landscape - The American elm (ulmus americana). The tree has been fighting the attacks of the Dutch elm disease and elm yellows for more than a century, and the battle seems to be nearly lost. The graceful towering figure that all American children east of the Mississippi once recognized instantly is now rarely seen at all by most Americans.

The stand of elms on the Penn State campus at University Park is thought to be the largest remaining stand in America. Winnepeg, Canada, holds the largest remaining stand anywhere in the world...over 170,000 elms that are under constant care.
"Veritably the standard against which the merits of other shade trees were measured, the American elm provided the ultimate in stateliness and beauty, making it the single most popular shade tree for lawns and city streets in the eastern United States, and earning it distinction as the state tree of Massachusetts and North Dakota. Architects even designed buildings with elm plantings inherent in their plans. The early citizens of Portland, Maine and New Haven, Connecticut had such a passion for the American elm that they created elm-lined streets on practically every block and earned each city such nicknames as "Forest City" and "City of Elms." Once as naturally abundant as maple, oak, and pine, the American elm was an essential part of our natural landscape and cultural heritage throughout the first few centuries of our history, and it was in fact the first symbol of our national independence; for a fine example had stood in Boston as the famous "Liberty Tree," an emblem of promise and a gathering site for patriotic citizens intent on independence, until British soldiers destroyed it as a final act of hostility during a hurried retreat in 1775.

Many of us remember how painful it was for our communities to witness the tragedy that recurred throughout the eastern states during the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's. Many remember watching helplessly as countless main streets, parks, historic sites, and neighborhoods that had been so handsomely graced with fine elms were transformed within a few years into barren, urban-looking landscapes devoid of trees, the result of a frighteningly efficient epidemic that had appeared suddenly. We can imagine the profound dismay of the citizens of Portland and New Haven as each "City of Elms" was transformed rapidly into a "City of Firewood," necessitating almost phenomenal removal expenses. Some may recall marveling at the futility of the "cut and burn campaigns" which were initiated to halt the spread of an epidemic that was killing trees literally by the millions each year." -
Bruce Carley, www.elmpost.org
Walking home from work yesterday afternoon, I passed through the stalls of the State College Arts Fest that sprawls across portions of the campus and the borough, and noticed some unusual-looking wood furniture. It was a booth featuring the Penn State Elms Collection, some artisan-quality pieces that the Penn State Alumni Association commissioned out of pieces of the magnificent old elms that are being reduced annually by the diseases.







I was especially interested, since I have a large elm in my back yard a few blocks from the campus. It was the crowning glory of our property, rising up behind the house...but late last summer I noticed one branch about fifty feet up had yellowed. This  spring, the tree leafed out...but within weeks it was dead.

I inquired if the University had any desire for the wood of my elm, but apparently, the relative merit of timber is like real estate...location, location, location. My elm timber, and all the rest of the off-campus elm wood that is being salvaged, is little more than sentimental firewood that I'll be splitting soon. Elm logs, anyone?

The battle to salvage the dying Penn State elms into alumni memorabilia is a great story featuring some fine folks from our central Pennsylvania wood products industry, as told in the following video produced by the university.




The effort being put forth by communities all over the continent to save their elms, and to preserve the wood remnants of them as they die, demonstrates once again the spiritual connection between mankind and the miracle we call wood.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Chuck,
What a great story! Interesting tidbit of information. Marc Lewis, Jeff Dice, and Keith Atherholt were classmates at Mont Alto in 1975-76 and thus the relationships were built!

Chuck Ray said...

Wow, Penn State admission standards must have been lower back then :-)