Our Marvelous Elm Tree…

Tree_SCAN0004BY Michael Mentzer

The second Titan of the Dutch Gap in Fond du Lac is about to follow the smoky destiny of the first.

Already, its outermost branches have been chewed to tiny pieces and chips by fearsome blades and funneled into the bed of a truck to be used as mulch for other trees and shrubs throughout the Fox Valley and beyond.

The massive stump, 18 feet in circumference and six-feet, four-inches in diameter, has encountered a similar fate at the mechanical hands of relentless grinding technology that reduced the massive American elm platform in the ground to tiny pieces of valuable hardwood mulch.

A mound of black dirt and newly emerging weeds mark the place where the massive elm took root and stood for an estimated 180 years — seven generations in human terms.

Massive logs and limbs await chainsaws and splitters at the end of Elizabeth Street, a one-block dead-end roadway that nudges the bank of the Dutch Gap and opens the door to the footbridge that connects with one-block Guinette Avenue on the other side, where the first titan, a 170 to 180-year-old bur oak crashed under its own weight in July of 2010 on the Mike and Paula Sergi property.
Much of the stately elm will be cut into firewood — 10 cords or more or about 1,280 cubic feet, according to one estimate (similar to the Sergi oak) — and some of it hopefully will be set aside for loftier purposes that could preserve the memory for a generation or two.

Citified wildness incarnate
We were blessed to know the Big Elm well for more than 30 years. Our children and grandchildren ran circles around it and freed cicadas from crevices in its bark. The tree anchored our front yard and the south end of Elizabeth Street and encompassed all the natural beauty that it shared with the citified wildness around it.

We marveled at its stature (nearly 90 feet) and its dominance. Its majestic canopy served as an environmental umbrella and as a resting place and home to countless birds. It was a favored place for great horned owls to exchange their haunting mating calls on cold dark December nights.

It was the kind of living, breathing creature that could never be taken for granted. Even though some people cursed its piles of leaves on their lawns, driveways and roofs in fall, and the seemingly millions of tiny elm seeds in their gutters and downspouts in spring. I never did. I enjoyed living in its shadow. I was glad it was there, but I knew deep down for years that its days were numbered.

I remember a particular winter night standing beneath the tree in the grip of a howling wind in the aftermath of a sleet storm that must have coated the limbs in a ton or more of ice. In the gale, the Big Elm flailed its limbs and shattered the icy cast into splinters of ice that rained down to form a sparkling layer of crystals on the street.

In an instant, amid the tree’s distinctive groans there came a deep, resounding, twisting, giant walnut crack that meant only one thing to me — a monstrous limb crashing to the pavement and crushing me like an owl squeezing the life out of a rabbit.

Running for my life
I ran away like a little kid, stumbling in my panic until I was beyond the canopy. There were no broken limbs (the tree’s or mine) but I’m sure that particular night was the time when one of two braided steel cables that bolstered the elm’s stability snapped like a piece of brittle string.

I realized that the double-trunked tree could someday split in two and crash down on our house. I admit it: I worried about it whenever the wind howled or thunderstorms passed by. I blindly trusted that we would be safe. Fortunately, that’s the way it played out.

tree_SCAN0003Thanks to Bob and Jane
I was thankful then and ever since for the foresight of Bob and Jane Flaherty who owned our house before we did. They took steps to add steel cables to the Big Elm and chemically treat it to buy time in its fight against elm bark beetles and the Dutch Elm Disease fungus that the beetles transmit.

We watched over the tree and contacted Brian Weed, the city’s arborist, with questions and observations about the elm. He did his best to safeguard it, and twice in recent years treated it chemically in the hope of holding off the inevitable. He warned us that age and disease were working against it.

On top of that, reconstruction of the street several years ago, deep excavation and installation of a new water main resulted in extensive cutting of major roots. No doubt, street construction also worked against the elm.

Despite all of that, the Big Elm emerged in spring with seeming strength and vitality. By mid-summer, though, the telltale signs were visible in the shriveled leaves and several leafless branches. By late summer, the tree wore the look of winter. The inevitable was at hand, but still it seemed like death came too quickly. We’re never quite ready, no matter what the mind tells us, for the emotional ending.

A four-man crew from Neenah arrived early in the morning a few weeks ago to cut the tree down.

“They told us it was big but not this big,” the lead man said as he leaned back to look toward the top of the tree. “This is going to take a while.”

In fact, it took the crew about 10 hours to cut the tree down, strap the trunk in pieces to a flatbed and clean up the street.
It took nearly 180 years for the venerable old tree to reach its zenith and 40 man hours to cut it almost even with the ground. A few days later, one man with a grinder spent a few hours erasing the stump from the landscape.

A tug on the heartstrings
It’s not pleasant to witness the end of a once living entity of such natural beauty, grace and power. Watching the inevitable take place tugs at the heartstrings.

That was evident in the reaction of virtually everyone who knew of the tree. Friends and neighbors and many people we didn’t know arrived to take pictures and pay their respects. It was almost like a funeral visitation for an esteemed member of the community.
I was anxious to know if the distinctive elm might be in fact two trees that had grown together early on. The crew confirmed that it indeed was one tree. The main trunk rose to a height of about six feet, then split into two additional trunks, giving the impression of two trees and spawning the fear that they could split in two and fall in two different directions, flattening anything in its descent.

I also wanted to know if insects and rotting were at the heart of the main trunk. That was not the case. The trunk was solid and viable within its entire 18-foot circumference. I had hoped to count the rings but I never got the chance.

I’ve often thought about those two titans of the Dutch Gap, two wood-making pillars of power a mere 50 feet or so apart.

A buffalo connection
If the estimates are correct, they were here when Native Americans and buffalo trod the oak openings of Fond du Lac prairie, and when settlers in covered wagons inched westward along the Military Road.

Those trees took root in the thicket and the brambles leading eastward from the Fond du Lac River about the time Colwert and Fanna Pier, the first white settlers here, were carving out a homestead far from their native Vermont.

Somehow the bur oak and the American elm were spared when lumberman Uriah Mihills bought acres and acres of land south of the present-day Dutch Gap after his arrival here in 1865 at the close of the Civil War.

Uriah and his wife Caroline had nine children, including a son Guindon who became a prominent local businessman. Guindon Boulevard is named in his honor. Guindon and his wife Mary Lee had two daughters, Grace and Guinette. Grace and Guinette avenues are named for them.

The oak on Guinette and the elm on Elizabeth towered over the countryside far from the city’s downtown in the 1880s and ’90s. Anyone standing near the trees enjoyed an unobstructed view of Lake Winnebago and the plumes of smoke from steamboats during that time in local history.

Rooted in river clay
The trees sent roots deep into the river clay around them and fortified their ability to withstand almost anything the forces of nature could throw at them.

That same clay was prized by a brick-making company that grew up, thrived and disintegrated across the river not far from where Pick ’n Save now stands. Bricks from that company were used to build at least two homes on our street a hundred years ago.

The trees had a century of longevity to their credit when our house in the Eichmeyer Addition was built in 1941, shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In the space of five years, they are gone, and a flood of light fills the void. Their tenure was marked by monumental societal and technological changes that accelerated over time at a faster and faster pace. They took root on the frontier in a slow and deliberate era and departed in the lickety-split age of the Internet and the search for another Earth in the far reaches of the universe.

A Greek proverb
Now, I have a responsibility I want to be a part of. Thanks to the city’s tree replacement program and the sharing of cost by the city and our family, an Autumn Blaze Maple will be planted just beyond the perimeter of where once there was a massive elm trunk. I can only envision how the maple will carry on the tradition of that special location.

It calls to mind a Greek proverb that has remained with me since the first time I heard it: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they shall never sit in.”

It’s my turn to be the old man now. I won’t be around to enjoy the shade the new tree creates, but someone will…someday. In the scheme of things, that’s what is really important.

An incense of oak and elm
At some point in the next few months I hope to place splits of wood from that old elm on the fireplace grate and savor the penetrating warmth and fragrance of nearly two centuries of wood making that occurred not far from our front door. We’ll do it on a Sunday night when we’re together for dinner — children, grandchildren, sons-in-law and their dogs, because dogs have an innate appreciation for what a fireplace means.

Maybe we can burn a chunk of Sergi oak and Mentzer elm together and let the smoky incense from the fireplace chimney drift on a northerly breeze and sanctify the land set aside for this current generation of Fond du Lac residents … and perhaps wonder what the next 180 years holds in store for the succeeding seven generations.

Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.

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