Tree of Long Life: We make one last visit to the oldest sugar maple

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O P I N I O N


On Easter morning, 2021, as we motored South down a nearly empty Route 101, my daughter asked, “Is the tree like one of these by the road, daddy, how will we find it?”

“It’s so much older, baby,” I said. “We’ll know it when we see it. It will be unlike any tree we’ve ever seen.”

We were on a pilgrimage, a sacred quest, seeking last-minute grace and connection on a day of rebirth. In less than 24 hours, a 250-year-old sugar maple – a creature born before America had presidents and the oldest known of its kind in our country – would come down. The grand tree was barely living now. Since the 1950s, the property owners had cared for the tree, never tapping it for sap, never allowing it to be cored. But a recent wind storm proved too much for the old one. She had decided on her own that her time had come.

I wanted my daughter to stand in the shadow of an ancient, the least we could do to give back to a creature that had given so much.

The tree was known as the Old Lady of Kensington, planted around 1780 when an addition was built on the old farmhouse that still stands. The Old Lady had a smaller, but still old sister Maple standing sentinel on the other side of the doorway. 

The tree was listed as a national champion. But her record would fall, in just a few hours. My daughter happily scribbled in her field journal as we drove – a roadside tree, a motorcycle crossing sign, a water tower. She planned on drawing a picture of the Old Lady.

Since it had been announced that the tree would come down, her impending fate had made national headlines. The owners, who for decades had employed an arborist to take care of the tree, had been swamped with requests for pieces of wood. Carpenters. Bowl makers. Chainsaw artists. Gardeners looking for seeds.

The owners, only half-joking, asked reporters why all those people wanting parts of the tree now didn’t want to help when the tree was alive. Indeed.

What were we trying to do here? What was I trying to preserve?

Walt Whitman suggested that trees offer humans “reflections of a richer variety” than mere shadows or mirrors. He meant, I think, reflections of ourselves; connection to our ancestors and to child-selves, testing our limits in a tree’s branches. Shade. Wildlife. A sense of Earthly delight. Can a mere wooden bowl reflect immortality?

Most likely not. But here we are, strangers, grasping for connection.

Uma with the Old Lady of Kensington. Photo/Dan Szczesny

The Old Lady was impossible to miss. Her primary branch – the one cracked in the recent storm – was the diameter of a refrigerator. Reports placed the girth of the tree at 21 feet around. My daughter stepped up to the trunk and leaned all the way back, trying to capture the top in her eyeline, imagining that perhaps Jack would show up any moment, pursued by a frightful giant. She plucked a two-inch slice of bark off the ground and tucked it into her pocket. Even she, especially she, needed a token.

After a few minutes, she sat on the stone stoop near the road and began to draw. Perhaps a poet, perhaps Whitman, could reflect in this moment about an exchange of memory, on the wise ancient one on its deathbed being captured one last time by the pure of heart. That’s not for me, though.

I gave Little Bean space, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder. I didn’t want to bear witness to the process of the old life now being preserved in ink and on paper. This was between them. 

While my daughter drew, I chatted with a man walking by with his daughter in a stroller. A handful of people stopped by and a few cars rolled slowly down the road in front; pilgrims all, coming to pay their respects. The man held his phone up to take a picture and I asked him if he wanted me to ask my daughter to move.

“Oh no,” he said. “I actually like her in the shot. If that’s ok with you.”

It was and I understood. 

“All set, daddy.” My daughter was holding her journal open to her drawing. In her vision, the sugar maple was young and sported an explosion of bushy leaves. Not a crack in sight.

“That’s beautiful, baby.”

We turned to look at the Old Lady once more, the afternoon gloaming played smartly off her worn bark.

“Goodbye tree,” I said.

“Goodbye tree,” my daughter said. She closed her journal and handed it to me, her assistant. I tucked it into my back pocket.

We move through life like the centuries of wind that has ruffled the tree’s branches. We move on, but we remember. We celebrate. We plant again.


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Dan Szczesny is a longtime journalist and writer who lives with his wife and energetic daughter in Manchester. Learn more about Dan’s adventures at www.dan-szczesny.square.site