Friday, February 03, 2012

Starting to Record the Tree Silhouettes of Winter: American Elm

I've reveled in the silhouettes of trees against the sky, especially during the winter time, for many years now.  In fact, one advantage of living in a prairie state is that tree silhouettes are very noticeable at every season.

For most of the years I've rejoiced in the beauty of winter trees, I've had a project floating in the back of my brain: to photograph the beautiful silhouettes I stumble upon so that I can share them with others.  Each species is so unique, and each tree is such an individual within its species, that it seems like an imperative to record their existence.

I don't, however, carry my camera with me most of the time.  Unfortunately, conditions in a car are often hazardous to said camera:  it's either beastly hot (summer) or horribly cold (winter).  Add in my concern about thieves relieving me of my precious camera...and it's easier to leave it at home unless I'm on a special trip to take photos.  Needless to say, those special trips don't get made very often and I'm left missing photographic opportunity after photographic opportunity during my normal driving routes and routines.

All that aside, I did make a special trip out two days ago, just to take pictures of trees.  The light wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good, so Becker and I loaded up and away we went.

My main subject for the day turned out to be a huge American elm (Ulmus americana) by the side of a back country road.  Supposedly this tree marks the original location of my local community, settled to service the cowboys as they crossed the Ninnescah River, driving cattle along the Chisholm Trail.  (It's the only town actually founded because of the Chisholm Trail.)  After the trail ceased functioning a few years later, the railroad came through about 1 1/2 miles away, so the enterprising settlers literally picked up their houses and moved the entire town so that it was next to the railroad, leaving this tree to grow in solitary splendor.

Presumably that isolation has helped preserve this tree from the Dutch elm disease that killed so many other American elms throughout the country.  (There are actually quite a few large American elms scattered throughout the prairie states, even in towns - I've often wondered why no one has tested any of them for Dutch elm resistance in developing a new cultivar.)  If you look at the photo above, you can see my 130 pound German shepherd sitting quietly under the tree.  Here is a "closeup" of him next to the trunk of this massive elder.  It's easy to see why American elm was such a popular tree before an imported disease came close to wiping it out.

While enjoying and photographing the massive presence of the tree, my eye was drawn to the finer branches, which seemed to be sporting larger buds than I expected.  So I snapped a shot or two of the buds, which are definitely more swollen than I'd like to see on the first day of February.  The response of plants to weather is certainly a process that we are relatively helpless to interfere with, but that doesn't mean I have to like what I'm observing!

I would guess that this grand old beauty is somewhere around 150 years old, presumably planted (or transplanted) by an early settler for shade next to his house.  How much longer will it live?  Who knows.  The farmer whose field is right beside it could decide that the tree's roots and shade are interfering with his crop and cut it down tomorrow.  With increasing heat and drought, it could become stressed enough to slowly succumb to more natural causes.  Certainly there are signs that it's entering old age.

Like the early settler who planted it, though, it's a survivor...and a reminder of how things used to be.   

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