Saturday, April 25, 2009

"The Trees of Northfield"

Bur oak in the northeast corner of the block occupied by St. John's Lutheran Church.

This morning, I stopped at a sale in the book-filled garage of the former owner of The Bookcase, one of Northfield’s many defunct Division Street bookstores. Among the treasures I found, and brought home with me, was a rare copy of The Trees of Northfield, a small chapbook self-published in 1948 by Harvey E. Stork, Professor of Botany at Carleton College and the first director of the Carleton Arboretum.

“Northfield is a city rich in trees,” Professor Stork writes. “Looking eastward from Manitou Heights, one sees in summer a green grove broken only occasionally by the steeple of a church, the tower of a school, or the roof of a commerical or factory building. It seems hardly possible that this forest shelters a population of five thousand people.”

In July 1948, Stork counted “2,426 trees of 48 different species growing in the parking between the sidewalk and curb;” in other words, street trees. Of these, the most numerous species in 1948 was the American elm: Stork counted 993 of them. The ravages of Dutch elm disease were beginning to be felt in Northfield, but Stork held out hope that science would bring a reprieve for the elms. Sixty-one years later, few of those elms remain.

Harvey Stork was born in Indiana and attended Cornell University, where his appreciation for trees was shaped by the northern hardwood forest of central New York. His appreciation was part aesthetic and part practical. When he began planning the arboretum at Carleton in the early 1920s, he wanted to introduce the most ornamental varieties along with commercially valuable species like white pine. Without a clear understanding of local biogeography and landscape history, two fields undeveloped at the time, Stork had little regard for the native bur oak.

“Some virgin trees of the Big Woods still persist on the college campuses and elsewhere in the city,” he writes. “The tree is however not used much as an ornamental. The lack of autumn coloration probably is against it.”

It’s revealing of his attitude that, in praising Robert Watson’s landscaping of Oaklawn Cemetery, Stork calls the cemetery “a beautiful burial park, in which the finest monuments are spruces, pines, larches, birches, catalpas, and dozens of other choice species.” He fails to mention the magnificent bur oaks. Oaklawn Cemetary exemplified what Stork wanted to create in the arboretum—a museum of ornamental and exotic trees.

One of the values of Stork’s little book is that he identifies what he considers particularly fine specimens of each species of tree. For the bur oak, he writes: “Fine old specimen on north-east corner of lawn, St. John’s Church.” The tree is still there, more than sixty years later, despite successive street and sidewalk reconstructions, and the expansion of the church and its parking lot. The oak is actually not a particularly fine specimen of a bur oak. Perhaps because of aggressive pruning to accommodate utility wires, its branches reach upward instead of spreading, as they would have done in the native oak savanna.

Stork tells a wonderful story in The Trees of Northfield about how Northfielders banded together to save a tree. At the end of the nineteenth century, a magnificent elm stoood on Forest Avenue on the west side of town. Stork writes: “About 1894 or 1895, it was slated to be cut down, but some tree lovers came to its rescue and it was granted another 25 years of life... In order to assure its future, Professor [Andrew] Fossum prevailed on the city council to set aside the little triangle on which the tree stood as a city park. This was newsworthy because it was represented as the smallest city park in existence.”

Professor Fossum, a professor of Greek at St. Olaf, organized a benefit baseball game between Carleton and St. Olaf to raise money to build an iron fence around the elm. “It was further stipulated,” Stork writes, “that the tree was to be named after the winner of the game.” The tree became known as the St. Olaf Elm.


Anonymous said...

I love that you are doing this piece at this time. I too am involved in a tree project, planting 15 trees at Greta's school in honor of Arbor Day. I've worked extensively to chose appropriate trees, relying on the expertise of the Middlebury College horticulturalist and a professor of Biology whose research is on Northeast Forests. But of interest in particular to you, is that we will be planting a Burr Oak at the entrance to the school. A lone prairie tree significant in the midwest plains, planted in the middle of VT traffic circle!

We're also planting a swamp white oak, burr oak, 3 accolade elms, 2 London Plane trees (sycamores), 2 crab apples, 1 shad/serviceberry, a tulip tree and three Green Mtn sugar maples.

In any case, I'd love to find a similar book about Middlebury. Does the tree in the triangle park still exist? The horticulturalist at Middlebury has a blog with an entry about a Burr Oak on the Midd campus. He notes the midwest significance of the tree. They take forever to grow, so it such a shame to cut down a huge one.
Anyway, I'd love to read more of this and chat with you more about trees.

John T. said...


I like bur oaks, knarley and picturesque. For some reason when I think about what a bur oak looks like I think of a cresent moon "tangled" in it's branches.

One died in our yard and I made a table from it. It's the heaviest, hardest wood you could imagine, its like working iron.

I enjoyed the post.

Jim H. said...

This post has it all: history, biology, baseball, and Greek. It lacks only a reference to food or cooking to make it the perfect post.

Penelope said...

I love the bur oaks too; they have such character. What a lucky find in this book, though not really luck after all since you were astute enough to have been on the lookout.

I still miss the giant elm that framed the east end of Parish House, where we were lucky enough to live for two years as Head Residents. There were bookend elms, one on each side of the mansion, but years ago now that majestic tree was taken down. Sigh.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .