Deerfield’s North Meadows Sentry Passes

A proud, dignified Old Deerfield elder, tall and broad, taciturn to a fault, died peacefully with little notice in recent months, ironically during the planting and nesting season of birth and growth.

Though few knew his name, it was Ulmus Americana, more commonly American Elm – a dying breed that once lined our streets and neighborhoods as deciduous shade trees. That was before a post-World War II Asian invader known as Dutch Elm Disease – a fungal pathogen transmitted by the elm bark beetle – arrived to push our elms to the brink of extinction. Today, the few stragglers that remain stand as lonely reminders of our past.

Before we proceed in this sensitive Happy Valley, let me say I could have used either gender to describe this wise old sentry, standing straight as a preacher man in the fertile North Meadows. Elm trees have no gender. They’re monoecious or hermaphrodite, meaning their spring flowers contain both male and female parts, which produce small, flattened seeds surrounded by papery wings that soften their fall to earth. Who knew?

Word of the tree’s rapid demise came to me by phone from friend Dennis Dassatti, who gardens in the rich, fertile North Meadows. He and those intimately familiar with the stately tree were perplexed by its sudden death – green leaves one day, then brown, then soon on the ground below, leaving a tall, broad, naked skeleton standing more than 100 feet tall with a 19-foot circumference at the base and at least 10 muscular leaders reaching to the sun. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Dassatti had known the tree for at least a half-century. Standing along the bank of a small pond that some would call a mudhole this time of year, he used to sit camouflaged with his back against the large tree waiting for ducks to fly in over his decoys within range of his Belgian Browning Auto-5 fowling gun. The tree was the hunter’s friend and associate, offering cover.

In more recent years, Dassatti has tended a long, narrow garden strip maybe 200 yards southeast of the tree. So, there his old friend stood as he worked, blotting out some of the hills called Sunsick on the western horizon. He was sincerely moved by its passing, like losing an old teammate.

There is no shame or foolishness in feeling such affection for a tree. In fact, many indigenous cultures do or once did identify plants, animals and some remarkable inanimate objects as beings with a soul and a spirit. It’s a worldview Western Civilization has trouble getting its heads around, yet one that’s gained much traction in alternative chambers of Western thought. Then, of course, there is Native American, hunter-gatherer spirituality, which follows the same wholistic pattern, granting equality to virtually everything in their universe. Plants, animals, mountains, springs and even some stones have spirits that must be included in cosmological council.

Heath forester Bill Lattrell, a man of aristocratic Native American roots, understands such belief systems. Of Eastern Algonquian and Cherokee roots, he’s a proud descendant of Grey Lock, the famous, displaced Woronoco (Westfield) warrior who, during the first third of the 18th century, wreaked havoc on what is now called the Pioneer Valley from his Lake Champlain Abenaki village. The man deeply resented the foreign interlopers who drove him and his people from their place.

I contacted Lattrell when lingering questions about the tree, its cause of death and age kept surfacing during telephone conversations. I needed expert consultation and, though I had never met the man, felt like I knew him from email correspondence concerning past columns I have written. I finally reached out by Facebook Messenger, and he agreed to visit the site and age the big elm on one of his trips through Greenfield. We finally connected last week, when we in front of the Deerfield Inn. Dassatti joined us on our way to the site, all of us arriving in separate vehicles in compliance with social-distancing recommendations.

I was in the lead as Dassatti joined us in-route down Broughams Pond Road and into the North Meadows. When we arrived at the T a quarter-mile away, I took a left onto Little Meadow Road and allowed Dassatti to take the lead the rest of the way. The tree and grassy lane leading to it were on private property, and he was friends with the landowners. We traveled a short distance, took a quick right before a barn and followed the lane along a barb-wired pasture holding cattle, parking 50 yards north of the tree.

When we exited our pickups and before introductions, Lattrell, looking directly at the tree, gave us a knee-jerk estimate, given what he could see from where we stood.

“Looks like about 175 years old,” he said.

We climbed under the fence and walked to the edge of the pond basin in which it stood. Able to see the entire tree from that vantagepoint 15 feet away, its massive base sitting eight feet downslope, he knew his initial age estimate was low.

“Wow,” he said, in awe of its girth. “What a magnificent tree. It’s older than I thought.”

Standing and chatting a short distance from the dead elm as Dassatti circled us taking photos, our private discussion entered into trees, nature and worldview. It was then that he shared valuable advice his Abenaki grandfather had once imparted while observing him as a 5-year-old whipping a tree with a long stick for no particular reason. Though his grandfather knew it was harmless kid’s play, he was uncomfortable with it. He calmly intervened, telling his grandson that was no way to treat a tree, that trees were living beings who should be treated with affection, the same as you’d treat an uncle, a cousin or grandparent. Trees bled, breathed, drank water and provided important resources. We should be thankful for trees, he was told, and at all times treat them with kindness and respect.

Lattrell remembers thinking, “Huh? What is he talking about?” But he never forgot the sage advice and, over time, evolved into a like-minded forester.

We were still chatting when Dassatti returned from his photo-shoot. We walked down to the base of the tree, where I pinned the end of a 200-foot tape measure 4½ feet up the massive trunk (called “breast-height) as Lattrell walked it down and around the tree. Measured at 17.2 feet around, the forester dug out his calculator, converted the circumference to 206.4 inches and plugged it into a complex formula involving Pi and the tree’s growth factor to arrive at an estimated age of 276 years, give or take.

In summation, Lattrell doesn’t believe the giant elm fell victim to a pathogen or poison. The life-expectancy of an American elm is about 300 years, and he thinks it had simply run its course in fertile isolation and died of old age.

We can now only ponder the historic events this grand old tree witnessed. The computed age of 276 years brings us back to 1744, 19 years before the end of the final French & Indian War. So, the elm definitely heard gunfire from the South Meadows’ Bars Fight below on Aug. 25, 1746. Who knows? It’s not out of the question that the tree had even sprouted in time to witness the infamous Feb. 29, 1704 Indian attack of Deerfield. Yes, unlikely, but not impossible.

Now the wise old sentry is dead, his reign ended without progeny to bear future witness. All that’s left is a conspicuous skeleton standing as a temporary gravestone. Maybe it’ll soon be a stump whose rings will reveal its exact age, whose cordwood will provide warmth for many winters.

Yes indeed, old Ulmus Americana had a good life in a great place, no richer soil anywhere on the planet.

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