One last look.

Let’s all forget that we were supposed to be on line at Walmart at 3AM today, or climbing over one another for those $3.00 toasters at Target, or grabbing us some $39.00 ugly cashmere sweaters at Kohl’s. Let’s remember that it’s still Fall, the most ephemeral season of the year. Let’s take the time for one last look.

One last walk in the woods — these are from the North Shore of Long Island, in a preserve known as Wellwyn.

These are from a swamp here on the North Shore. Yes, a real swamp: Shu Swamp.

And these are from the woods in back of my house. I’ve had a bit of a writer’s block this past week. It comes in the form of pure boredom with everything that crosses my mind, a listless disgust with the notion that I have anything worthwhile to tell, and a raving impatience with the act of setting words down on a page one freaking letter at at time. There are days when this writing job of mine feels a lot like trying to engrave the Lords Prayer in pig Latin on the head of a pin using a hammer and a chisel, if I have the reference to pin heads and writing upon them right, and how unamusing it is.

But I can always go to my comfort zone, take a walk, paint some leaves, feel that still have the manual dexterity if not the intelligence skill, art, or desire to do some semi-delicate work, and not feel like poking my eyes out after all.

PLUS here’s a bonus that you will see only here:

These are real leaves…but YOU’LL NEVER GUESS what kind of leaves they are!

Go on. Guess.

You’ll never guess.

But guess a tree that you’ve probably never seen.

One of the rarest trees in the world.

That grows about five miles from me, on the old estate of E. F. Hutton, the millionaire stock broker who built himself a nice mansion on the North Shore of Long Island in 1922.

OK, you’ll never guess so I’ll tell you.

They are from an American Elm tree.

This elm tree was planted in 1922 when it was 20 inches in diameter, indicating that it was already 20 years old when the famous and first female landscape architect Marian Coffin planted it for Mr. Hutton and his wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post. It escaped the fate of the 60 million American Elm trees that were killed 1924 – 1965 from Dutch elm disease that nearly wiped out elm trees worldwide (read about it here:

And when the Hutton/Post estate was turned into a campus of Long Island University in 1954, this tree managed to survive vast new landscaping, and improvements and additions to the existing structures. In 2003, this elm tree was registered with the National Register of Historic Elms.

I went to visit this elm tree in early September and it looked like this:

This elm (let’s call her Marjorie) shades the parking lot of the Administration Building at C. W. Post College. I am standing on the blacktop to take this photo, facing the dorms which you can barely see in the background. And, if you look really hard, you can see, leading up to the first branch, the electric cord that attaches to a light fixture that has been hammered into the tree.

Yes. They turned this magnificent American Elm tree into a lamp for a parking lot.

Everytime I go see this tree, I hug it and I apologize.

What do you say to a tree when you hug it?

17 Comments, RSS

  1. CarolM November 26, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    I love your pics this morning I am under a foot of snow right now and the temps are below zero. I much prefer the weather in your post.

    Not much in to hugging trees, but I can tell you there is nothing like having to leave the area you love and go to a treeless area. Every time I get to come back home I cannot believe how nice it is to stand in the front yard and listen to the wind in the trees. It does not bother me at all at that moment that the wind is causing the trees to drop needles and cones in the yard I am going to be cleaning up-the sounds is glorious.
    To trees, I love you and all your yard waste!

  2. Vicki November 26, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    I love the American Elm and it’s leaves.

    Next time you are there, give it an extra hug from me.

    How could they!!!


  3. Sallyann November 26, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    I have never seen an American Elm but I have read about them.
    I love trees so much and often talk to the Norwegian Maple that graces my front yard. She has so much strength and beauty no matter what the season. But you know I have never hugged her. Perhaps this is the day to do that. What would I say? “Oh dear friend, I thank you for living here with me and bringing me joy each day.”

  4. Joan/Jesse November 26, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    I hope you’re going to preserve the American Elm leaves in a press or with glycerin. They are just lovely. Using that tree for a light pole is a sacrilege. They should be horse-whipped.

    I have a magnificent Sycamore tree in my front yard that brings me joy in all seasons. The bark of this fine tree is pink and greenish gray. The little seed balls that are filled with fuzzy seeds are plentiful.

    There are knitters out there who knit sweaters for trees…! True story, I’ve seen photos in magazines and online.

    Joan, a tree hugger for years

  5. Jeannie November 26, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    We have American Elms in our part. I guess Dutch Elm disease didn’t reach this far or the weather is too inclimate. I hug our trees everyday in the winter as a place offerings for the squirrels in the nooks for treats. Have a beautiful weekend. Your book is zooming it’s way to me from Amazon! I can’t wait!

  6. sarahsbooks November 26, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    I too am such a tree hugger. I paint them and write poetry to them, and shake hands with them, and sometimes when I am walking in the woods they pat me on the top of my head like I’ve been a good kid.

  7. Sally November 26, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    Ah, Vivian, you are showing your (younger) age when you say, “You’ll never guess.” I am not very deeply into the social security years, but I immediately thought, “Elm.” I was privileged to grow up with an elm in my childhood back yard in the 50’s, and to travel on certain streets in Buffalo that were cool, dark tunnels formed by the intermingling branches of the elms lining the street.

    Thanks for a remembrance of an old friend among trees.

  8. Rachel November 26, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    This sounds like the *adaptive reuse* that has saved us so many historic buildings. They gut the inside and if they can put something in there to make a commercial profit, we get to keep the outside. And they get a huge tax break. You beautiful and historic elm is indeed a survivor and perhaps not so very ashamed to be able to bring some light to those fumbling around in the dark.

    Do check out our own Kate Sessions who landscaped a good bit of San Diego, including the amazing Balboa Park.

  9. Gigi November 26, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    I live in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on a beautiful elm-lined street. Alberta has the world’s largest “inventory” of disease-free elm trees, and our city carefully monitors the health of the thousands of graceful giants that grow on our boulevards. The trees are still DED free today, although the drought we’ve had over the last 10 years has taken its toll on some of the city’s trees, and I weep when they finally must be cut down. Two elms grow on the boulevard in front of my little 1950s bungalow, and a seedling from those trees is growing into a stately adult in my backyard. On the boulevard the arching branches of the trees on one side join the others across the street and create a magical green passageway in summer, that turns to gold in fall. Today snow clings to the branches and the rough bark. I love my elms in all their seasonal splendor, and they are the reason I chose this neighborhood. I feel very lucky to be able to gaze at those elms living right outside my windows! I also feel protective of them because they are so very precious.

  10. Gigi November 26, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    DED stands for Dutch Elm Disease. To read more about the struggles faced by elms, check out$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/prm1043

  11. Gitana (aka G2) November 26, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    If you love trees you’ll love the amazing work of interdisciplinary tree canopy specialist Nalini Nadkarni who has been called “the queen of canopy research.” She explores the world found in the tops of trees and communicates what she finds to non-scientists with the help of poets, preachers and prisoners.

    To hear her funny and informative TED talk on the subject go to:

    Nadkarni is the creator of Treetop Barbie – a real Barbie doll who sports hand-tailored clothes modeled on real field clothes and climbing gear and comes with a field guide to canopy plants and animals. The TreeTop Barbie package includes the doll and a personal letter from Barbie about forests and their importance to people.

    Nalini Nadkarni has spent two decades climbing the trees of Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon and the Pacific Northwest, exploring the world of animals and plants that live in the canopy and never come down; and how this upper layer of the forest interacts with the world on the ground. A pioneering researcher in this area, Nadkarni created the Big Canopy Database to help researchers store and understand the rich trove of data she and others are uncovering.

    Nadkarni teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, but her work outside the academy is equally fascinating — using nontraditional vectors to teach the general public about trees and the ecosystem. For instance, she recently collaborated with the dance troupe Capacitor to explore the process of growth through the medium of the human body. In another project, she worked with prison inmates to grow moss for the horticulture trade, to relieve the collecting pressure on wild mosses. The project inspired in her students a new reverence for nature — and some larger ecochanges at the prison.

    She’s the author of Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees.

  12. Deborah November 26, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

    I kept thinking I should recognize those leaves. They looked familiar. Then I read the answer & realized, Oh. They remind me of the slippery elms here. I pull out slippery elm seedlings all the time.

    As others have indicated, I have seen American elms — there were a couple left in our neighborhood in Flint, dying a slow death. Sad. I remember feeling so sad when I learned about the American chestnut being similarly wiped out (although their roots apparently endure?!D)

    We have a huge hackberry tree smack in the middle of our back yard. I don’t literally hug it — it’s too big to get my arms around. But I do send it mental hugs all the time, mostly thanking it for being there for the birds, and for not blowing over during some of our intense wind storms: “Hang on, baby! This place wouldn’t be nearly as wonderful without you.”

    Every fall, the a flock of robins shows up to eat the berries. They showed up yesterday, for their Thanksgiving dinner, along with a few starlings, a titmouse, and a lone mourning dove (who was not eating, just hanging out). I’ve seen pileated woodpeckers in that tree. And hackberry butterflies going from leaf to leaf, laying eggs. It’s better than tv.

  13. Jacquelyn November 26, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    Dear Tree….how I love you. If I could stop all the warring on this, on that, I would create and fund an army to replenish all the trees that have gone to make way for progress or just to make decks. May the forest be with you……thank you for your warmth and shelter

  14. Gigi November 27, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    Thank you, Vivian, for your inspirational post and for giving us tree-hugging types a place to share our love of the leafy ones. It is wonderful to be in the company of like-minded women. Your photo of the leaf-covered car (complete with butterscotch cat) is beautiful, but your leaf paintings are gorgeous. They’ve inspired me and I want to try painting the leaves I pressed this fall, even though the colors have faded now. I can’t wait to see what you have to say next, or what painting lessons you will next share with us, and I can’t wait for your book to come out. I will be sure to share it with the creative writing classes I teach at the university here.

  15. Lisa November 27, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    I wish I could remember the beautiful fall leaves. We’ve been covered in snow for a little while now. I love your beautiful images. Whenever I hug a tree I like to tell it thank you and when I prune my trees I apologize to her but let her know it’s for her own good and she will thank me later. 😀

  16. Barb November 27, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

    Love all your leaves! Wonder if your embroidery could help when you are in a funk. I so love all the pictures done in “When Wanderers….” and all the details therein about what embroidery has meant in your life. Color and texture too! Look forward to more. Enjoy all your good work – back to my bead embroidery.

  17. Ken November 28, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    I was very excited to learn that you had published something about the beautiful historic American Elm located on the C.W. Post Campus (former Marjorie Merriweather Post estate) in Brookville. As I read the story, I started to think, this can’t be the tree I have walked by for the past twenty years. The photo that you show as “Marjorie” is located along the road near the Adelaide Close Riggs resident hall, and is NOT the historic American Elm the campus is so proud of. The American Elm that Marian Coffin planted (one of two) is in fact just east of the mansion’s Great Hall and is not being used as a lamp post for a parking lot.

    I feel that an injustice has been done to the historic American Elm at the campus. The historic tree has been lovingly tended and nurtured for decades. Sadly the elm’s sister tree was lost years ago, but thankfully the one still adorns the mansion for all to come and enjoy its majesty and beauty.

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