Friday, March 4, 2011

More News From Mount Auburn Cemetery

Horticultural Highlight: Strobus

Wood is the stiff heart of the living tree,
the corpse left after its death.
We walk through our homes,
our external skeletons made of the bones of trees.
Some wood bends and some breaks....
-Marge Piercy

We write this with a touch of sadness due to the loss by storm breakage of numerous trees and shrubs from this winter's heavy snowstorms. It will be awhile until we record a final accounting of the total damage but we have lost several large Eastern white pines, Pinus strobus. Perhaps no other tree has played so great a role in the early life and history of the United States. The first European settlers marveled at four-hundred-year-old groves of Pinus strobus reaching 150 feet tall and up to five feet in diameter and its harvesting began almost immediately. Some were recorded with heights up to 220 feet but today few reach half that height and age.

Mount Auburn's visionary founder, Jacob Bigelow (1787-1879), gave a description in his classic text Florula Bostoniensis that is still instructive, "This noble and very useful tree rises with a straight trunk to uncommon height.... The branches are given off in whorls or circles. The leaves...grow in fascicles of five together, with hardly any sheath. The cones are very long, cylindrical, curved, and pendulous; composed of large, smooth loose scales." He continued, "No tree is more extensively employed in building or for the ordinary purposes of carpenters' and joiners' work. The large trees are particularly in request for the masts of ships, and vast quantities of the wood have been annually exported from the eastern coast in the form of timber and boards." An example of the latter is found in an account book of the Commissioners of Customs in America for the year 1771 reporting 2.5 million feet of pine exported from North American ports.

Any discussion of the Eastern white pine for its use as ships masts should include the legacy of it once being selected as the so-called "King's Pine". As early as 1691 the English monarchy acted to take control of this valuable domestic as well as export resource by including a clause in the revised Massachusetts Bay Charter that reserved them for its naval use. Colonial flouting of this and other succeeding laws restricting harvesting resulted in Parliament in 1729 passing a stronger, morespecific law stating "no white pine trees are to be cut without license." It further reserved for the Royal Navy "All the masts ... exceeding twenty-four inches in diameter, all trees that exceed fifty-four feet in length in the stem, all young pine trees that seem promising to grow to masts." This law remained in effect until 1775, the beginning of our American Revolution, and helped to stoke hostility between the northern colonies and the crown that later exacerbated over stamp duties, tea taxes and military presence in towns.

It is hard today to imagine our Eastern white pines as objects of national security necessitating external national laws controlling their fate. The famed nineteenth-century landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) in his 1841 The Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening gave a less political and more inspired view along with high praise: "From its pleasing growth and color, we consider it by far the most desirable kind of planting in proximity of buildings...". Today we more frequently see Pinus strobus as an evergreen backdrop in our landscapes, a lovely shade tree, a perch for the interesting bird we are focusing on through our binoculars or perhaps the muse of poetic couplets such as these by Donald Everett Axin:

Graceful pines perform pirouettes with hemlocks
And look like green pipers parading down the trail.

While we regret this winter's loss of a few of our mature Eastern white pines there remain several hundred more throughout our landscape. On your next visit to Mount Auburn we encourage you to seek one out and reflect a bit on this specie's momentous history as well as natural beauty.

The Timberdoodle

This e-mail came across my desk this morning. Always something interesting from these folks out Boston-way. A little spotlight on Wildlife at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA:

The Am
erican Woodcock By Robert H. Stymeist

It's hard to believe the American Woodcock is a member of the shorebird family, this plump shorebird is rarely found near the shore instead it prefers the forest and open fields. Although Mount Auburn seems like a very unlikely spot to find one - every year in March and early April the visiting birder or the occasional visitor out walking in the Cemetery may encounter this unique bird. The American Woodcock is an extremely distinctive bird both in its appearance and in its behavior. It has a long straight bill which almost looks like a pencil jutting out of its head. Woodcocks have large eyes located high in the head so they can see all around including what may be behind them and very short pink legs. Its plumage is a complex pattern of cinnamon brown which helps in making this bird blend in to its natural surroundings; both males and females look alike. The Woodcock arrives sometimes as early as late February and way before the first official day of spring risking snowstorms and frigid weather that is not unusual here in the northeast. It is the mating behavior that many birders can't wait to experience each late winter evening. The sky dance of the woodcock is one of the best avian displays we can witness from the cold evenings of early March right up to the end of May. Mount Auburn is not the place to watch the show though I have seen the aerial flight show from the Catholic Cemetery adjacent to Mount Auburn which provides an open display area. Some of the areas nearby Mount Auburn to see this free show include Rock Meadow in Belmont, Great Meadows in Arlington, and Nahanton Park in Newton. As the sun sets listen for a nasal sounding "peent," the bird will repeat this sound several times and then the real show begins. The woodcock rockets upward, the wings produce a twittering sound, the bird makes loops and arcs going so high you will lose sight of it until you hear the descent: a series of almost flute-like calls as the bird literally plummets to the ground and begins another series of " peents" before the next flight; this will go on for several minutes. Though you may never experience the sky dance of the "Timberdoodle" at Mount Auburn you have a chance to find him anywhere on the grounds before the first crocus appears.