Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Losing an Old Friend: Trees at Clermont

The spring and summer of 2011 has been a tough one at Clermont for trees. We've lost several large, historic ones to storms. We have felt a sense of loss with each one and wondered about this affects our historic landscape.

Sadly, our biggest loss came last week when two very large limbs were blown off the big maple that stood within 100 feet of the mansion. This tree has shaded the Croquet Lawn, framed our view of the house, and been a thing of beauty since long before I got here. But the loss of the limbs revealed a danger that could not be ignored: the tree was hollow for 15 feet inside. We consulted several tree companies, but the news was the same from each. The tree could fall at any time, and there was no way of knowing who would be under it when it did.

With heavy hearts we were forced to order its removal. For two days the air was ful of the sound of chainsaws and crashing branches as we bid goodbye to our old friend. The ivy alone was as thick as my wrist!

As hard as it is, losses like this are one of the challenges of maintaining an historic landscape. While we are trying to keep things "the way they were," plants grow and change and die. Trees that were huge when Janet and Honoria were children were dead and gone before New York State ever made Clermont a museum. The forsythia bushes that now brighten the edge of the Southwest Terrace with a tangled jungle were barely more than wisps in the early 20th century when the photo at right was taken (though the black walnut at the corner of the house was, and still is, absolutely massive).

The question of what should get cut back to resemble historic appearances or what should be preserved out of respect for beautiful old plants is a difficult one. Our policy up until now has been to replace significant trees with another of the same breed. Plants that are not historic to the 1930s (for instance, the two magnificent magnolias in the walled garden, which were planted a decade or so later) are kept until they die naturally and are then not replaced. It doesn't make us less sad when those plants go!

We are currently making plans to properly honor this tree and its place at Clermont. In the meantime, I just had to go look at the hulking trunk on the Croquet Lawn. It was true, the hollow area was large enough for a full-grown man to crawl inside. I counted the rings on the ramaining wood and got 84. Eighty-four years ago, it was 1927, the year John Henry passed away after returning from a seven-year trip to Europe. The fungus that was killing the tree had progressed only as far as the wood that was present during his lifetime. Strange coincidences happen every day, I guess...

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