Preserving a way of light

The last line of the accomplishments listed by the town manager in this year's report reads: "Brought 30 large elm trees over 100 miles to supplement our stock." When I read it, I flashed back to the day in October when Joe Slocum, the town manager, pulled up in his van, obviously elated.

"I just planted 18 young elm trees," he beamed.

I imagined saplings, but Joe described 20-foot-tall trees, each with a root ball weighing half a ton. They'd arrived on an enormous flatbed truck, which made sense of another recollection: Joe with the town crew unloading an elegant tree into a deep hole in a front yard on Main Street. Their joy was obvious, hefting a new tree into a spot left elmless for quite a few years.

The gap created by an expired elm affects the facade of a house like a missing front tooth. Colonial-era dwellings, with their shady elms planted symmetrically out front generations ago, just don't seem to smile when their trees are gone.

Joe's pleasure in planting something made sense, too. Many of his days are devoted to fixing broken things, planning to fix broken things, or scouting for things that will soon break and need to be fixed: water mains, paving, drainage ditches, heavy equipment, street signs, community relations. So fixing elm gaps must be especially satisfying, a municipal improvement so obvious and enduring that no one can object.

Who wouldn't take pride in planting any old new tree? But elms are special trees and my small village in Maine is known for them. The majestic old trees dominate Castine. While this once-abundant species has all but vanished from the New England landscape, our elms persist, each tree pampered to thwart the beetle-borne elm blight. Each tree possesses such individual character that they are practically honored with family names. As the town's eldest citizens, they are accorded the greatest respect. Elms have a stature above and beyond that of other trees. Elms preside.

Nonetheless, even here in elm Arcadia, the grand trees are less plentiful than they once were, and there is no younger generation of this species coming along to assume the throne. Photos from yesteryear record the town common with dozens of the graceful trees, planted in strict rows down and across, a regiment of elms.

At the dedication ceremony for the Civil War monument in 1887, the dour citizenry gathered beneath the elm canopy. When I study the photo, it tells me precisely what the light and air must have felt like on that day in May. And I can step outside and experience the same light and air, because it feels the same way on a May day in my era.

Though there are fewer trees now, the fewer trees are 100 years larger, their panoply of shade more extensive. I would also say that the contemporary citizenry is much less stern. Like the trees, however, the town's population has shrunk. Today, a "dour" expression is reserved for losing an elm tree.

The elm in front of my house has a girth as big as the ring made by three of our children plus one adult holding hands, which means it must surely have been planted back when Maine was a British colony. My daughter's seventh-grade science class took its measure more scientifically. Its circumference is 16 feet. They calculated that, allowing nine annual growth rings per inch, the tree had been a sapling planted in 1761.

"They're not easy to paint," said an artist who had been moving his easel around town last August, painting portraits of houses overhung with elms. "There's something unusual about their light and shadow; it's hard to get right." It's the hazy softness of elm foliage, dappling sunlight like yellow-and-green chiffon. These seacoast elms host lichens and mosses that give them a hoary, wizened feel, especially when fog tiptoes off the harbor and adheres to their leaves and branches. I love the feeling of a foggy afternoon when condensation drips from the elms through the cottony air, also the acme of Castine. When the moon rises, it flits through elm branches like a snowy owl hunting mice.

Perish the thought that elm light and shadow are on the wane, soon to be confined to paintings by artists who could get it right, the way Dutch Master studies of rooms in Amsterdam preserve what Renaissance light was like.

So it's hopeful to see Joe planting elms. It is preventive maintenance of heirloom sunlight, preservation of the elm shade 100 years hence, regeneration of the canopy for future citizenry assembling on the common on May afternoons.

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