Yesterday marked Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. The nation celebrated with speeches and songs to commemorate the remarkable life of our 16th president. But in my neighborhood, the festivities extended to honor another historic figure.
In a section of New Jersey's woods stands a tall, majestic poplar tree perched on top of rocky cliffs above the Hudson River. Near the bottom of its trunk hangs a sign that reads, "This tree took root the year that Lincoln was born: 1809."
I pass the poplar tree often on hikes up a hilly trail, and crane my head toward its top – more than a hundred feet from the ground. Its trunk is way too wide for me to wrap my arms around.
In the winter, big, bare branches stand out starkly against a gray or azure sky, like boldly etched pen-and-ink designs. Sometimes, when it snows, the tree is swathed in white with a glassy glaze. Then, when spring arrives, broad, squarish leaves emerge, followed soon by tuliplike flowers in subtle shades of orange, yellow, and the lightest green.
But no matter the season, weather, or world events, the poplar has stood stalwart while 200 years of history happened.
These double centuries are, indeed, replete with history: economic and political upheavals, medical and scientific breakthroughs, wars and terrorist attacks, tremendous technological advances, and 28 subsequent presidents – peaceful intervals interspersed between tempest-torn times.
Nature also alternates between tranquility and raging storms.
The poplar tree has often been bombarded and attacked by ice and snow, and torrential winds and rain. Some summers it is scorched by unrelenting heat and drought.
On a stormy winter day, I went out into the woods and watched the poplar's branches gyrating with the wind.
"That is why most of them do not break," a fellow hiker explained to me. "Because of their flexibility, they bend along with the wind rather than resisting it."
That trait of flexibility – the capacity to change position as circumstances so demand – is one for which Lincoln was admired, too.
"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present," he said in his second annual message to Congress. "The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."
But not everyone agreed, and the president was often buffeted by bitter winds of opposition.
"If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business," he said.
I thought again of those words as I stood beside our poplar tree and slid my hands along its trusty trunk.
Some bits of bark had broken off and many twigs lie scattered on the ground following an "attack" from a recent winter squall.
I had sometimes seen trees with torn and scarred trunks, appearing injured past repair, and subsequently learned that the vital portion of each tree – its sapwood – is situated safely beneath the bark.
There, deep within special cells, necessary nutrients move up and down from roots to leaves. This reminds me of something Lincoln said: "I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration, that if at the end, when I lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside of me."
As President's Day nears, we will remember leaders – like Abraham Lincoln – who bravely forged the unforeseen paths before us.
But we will also recall why we gathered around our old and regal poplar tree this week – to speak and think about how it was there long before we came along and will, most likely, still remain after we are gone – just like the legacy of an honorable man who was born in the year our tree took root.
"Character," said Lincoln, "is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing."