Sunday, December 6, 2009

For the Love of Hemlocks

During his lifetime, Donald Culross Peattie (1898-1964) might have been the most widely read of contemporary American nature writers. Though born in Chicago, he spent much of his youth in Tryon, North Carolina where he displayed an early fascination with plants. Mark Peattie tells a family legend from his father's boyhood:

Walking along a dusty road in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina, he met another boy carrying a gorgeous flowering dogwood branch with which the boy kept hitting his shoes to keep the dust off. Young Donald was so struck by the floral glory so callously treated, that on the spot he exchanged a brand new pen-knife with inlaid mother-of-pearl for the dogwood branch.

Peattie returned to the North Carolina mountains many times. While I’ve never seen the great forests of chestnut trees myself, I am indebted to Peattie for a word-picture of chestnuts viewed from Mount Mitchell, one of the most unforgettable descriptions I’ve ever read.

If it happens that the people who come after us are denied the sublime joy of experiencing the hemlocks in our forests, at least they can turn to Donald Peattie:

In the grand, high places of the southern mountains Hemlock soars above the rest of the forest, rising like a church spire — like numberless spires as far as the eye can see — through the blue haze that is the natural atmosphere of those ranges. Sometimes even its branches reach out like arms above the crowns of other trees. But though the Hemlock’s top may rejoice in the boldest sun and brave any storm, the tree unfailingly has its roots down in the deep, cool, perpetually moist earth. And no more light than a glancing sunbeam ever penetrates through the somber shade of its boughs to the forest floor...

Hemlock Bough - Paul Landacre woodcut from Peattie's A Natural History of North American Trees.

Approaching such a noble tree, you think it dark, almost black, because the needles on the upper side are indeed a lustrous deep blue-green. Yet when you lunch on the rock that is almost sure to be found at its feet, or settle your back into the buttresses of the bole and look up under the boughs, their shade seems silvery, since the underside of each needle is whitened by two lines. Soon even talk of the tree itself is silenced by it, and you fall to listening. When the wind lifts up the Hemlock’s voice, it is no roaring like the Pine’s, no keening like the Spruce’s. The Hemlock whistles softly to itself. It raises its long, limber boughs and lets them drop again with a sign, not sorrowful, but letting fall tranquility upon us.

Meanwhile, officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have just announced that they are “cautiously optimistic” about efforts to save the trees from the hemlock woolly adelgid. Although the decline is widespread, the Park has focused on a treatment area of about 132,000 trees, using a three-pronged strategy of predatory beetles, foliar treatments and systemic treatments. While the chemical treatments are expensive and labor intensive, the hope is that they will buy time for the predatory beetles to get established. So far, over a half million of the predator beetles, of three different species, have been released to gobble up the adelgids.

The adelgids arrived in the United States on nursery stock from Japan a hundred years ago, but were not detected in the Park until 2002.

More on this story from the Knoxville News Sentinel:

And more on Peattie from the University of North Carolina Herbarium:

1 comment:

Mountaindreamers said...

I hope the treatments are helpful as the devastation on the Deep creek Trail is sad.