Long-lived hemlock witness to history

Posted Nov. 27, 2009, at 5:57 p.m.

Before the Revolutionary War.

Before the Mayflower weighed anchor.

Before Columbus set sail.

Way before the Crusades ended.

Even before the Magna Carta.

Just a smidge before the Normans conquered Britain.

A seed took root.

Google the phrase “1,000 years ago” and a curious mix of headlines pop up. Just add 1,000 years ago to the following lines and you’ll see what would have been front-page news had there been front pages: “A tsunami in Puget Sound,” “Church better off today than … ,” “Indians nibbled chocolate,” “Image of space explosion,” “Chinese invented golf,” and “Google Earth reveals fish trap made from rocks.”

Slowly — oh, so slowly — the sprout unfurled.

Seasons passed. Dynasties, conquerors, invaders, settlers came and went. Countries rose and fell. Civilizations lived and died.

Still the sprout grew, deep in the shadows, as the sun burned and the stars shone on William the Conqueror, da Vinci, Galileo, Linneus, Einstein.

Until one day, the shadows fell away.

This is the story of a hemlock.

When I read that the oldest known hemlock was 988 years old, it boggled my mind. Touching on a few major events is astounding enough, but then you think about the people of those years.

It is like contemplating the universe.

A hemlock stood witness to this.

Wow.

Before this summer, I don’t recall encountering a hemlock. Ever.

A number of evergreens fill the woods around my house: pine, fir, spruce and even a tamarack we planted a few years back. In the swampy area down the hill is a host of cedars.

But no hemlock.

This summer, my dog, Kai, and I started walking at a tree farm and managed woodlot near home. I began to see a number of interesting specimens, including a stand of majestic evergreens with magnificent furrowed bark and a number of sprightly baby evergreens lining a section of woods road. None of this could I identify.

Every day it bugged me. And every day I forgot to get my tree book when I got home.

One day I thought: hemlock.

I didn’t know what one looked like, but it stuck in my head. Still, I forgot to look it up.

Then a few weeks ago, I was wandering in Mr. Paperback and found “Forest Trees of Maine: Centennial Edition 1908-2008” published by the Maine Forest Service.

I fell in love with this book. Unadulterated data is mixed with fun tree facts, historical bits and — my favorite — entries from the Maine Register of Big Trees 2008, which lists the prizewinner of each profiled species, complete with circumference, height and location.

I started to thumb through and found hemlock.

There it was, my mystery tree.

Tsuga canadensis, or Eastern hemlock, grows in stands throughout the state, the book says. Its best-known use was its bark for tannin, used in leather tanning of old. Today the bark is valued for its purple-colored mulch.

Online, I found even more. The best site was Wild Western North Carolina (www.wildwnc.org), which set the stage by saying an Eastern hemlock may take 250 to 300 years to reach maturity and can live for 800 years or more.

A sprout readily grows in the shade of the forest understory — it needs as little as 5 percent of full sunlight to survive, making it the most shade tolerant of all tree species — but so slowly that if you find a hemlock less than an inch in diameter at breast height (d.b.h.), it could be 100 years old. One tree found in a dense stand was 10.3 inches d.b.h. and a lofty 359 years old.

A hemlock can survive suppression in the understory for as long as 400 years, the site states.

It was here, too, that I found a passing reference to the millennium hemlock, that 988-year-old wonder that first got me thinking.

A tree’s life is usually measured in decades, not centuries. Which makes me feel small and insignificant when I see the stand of majestic hemlocks on my daily walks.

It’s the same feeling I get when contemplating the stars and thinking about how long it took the twinkle to reach Earth.

And it makes me wonder how I would feel if I got to see and touch the hemlock that took the “big tree” prize in Maine.

Somewhere in North Yarmouth is an 88-foot behemoth with a circumference of 127 inches.

How many centuries, do you suppose, are under its bark?

Forest Trees of Maine

The centennial edition of this comprehensive publication would make a great gift. Check your local bookstore ($15.95 at Mr. Paperback) or contact the Maine Forest Service at 207-287-2791, forestinfo@maine.gov or www.maineforestservice.gov.

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