I always hated goodbyes. They were superfluous and dramatic to me. I hated them until last summer, when I stumbled upon a grove of stale tree corpses about an hour outside of Asheville, N.C. There was hardly a canopy above me, and my eyes watered as eerie sunlight blared into them. The mountain stream still ran, but it was too warm for any brook trout. No Shakespearean “adieu, adieu, adieu” could have been dramatic enough for that moment. In this column and in future pieces, I will make peace with loss by attempting to make up for the goodbyes I never said, and to find fulfillment in saying them.
The difference between evergreen and deciduous trees, according to Cherokee legend, is one of persistence and willpower in seeing an ordeal through to the end. So it was for Usis the eastern hemlock, whose lopsided crown indicates that its growth was marked with adversity, which only makes its ultimate death to the tiny sap-sucking woolly adelgid more senseless.
For a mightily resilient eastern hemlock, the word “adversity” feels far heavier than for humans. Judging by its record-breaking height, Usis likely sprouted during the rule of Genghis Khan, then lived for centuries in the total shade of the dense Appalachian understory, waiting for a vacancy in the canopy above. Apparently the only opening in that time was inopportunely slanted, yet Usis nonetheless grew up and outward. It reiterated its limbs and grew new trunks out of them until Usis, the tallest hemlock ever recorded, loomed tall above the Cataloochee Valley and the surrounding Smoky Mountains. Perhaps this gives you an idea of the persistence possessed by this particular hemlock tree.
And perhaps now the whole picture becomes slightly easier to handle, for the fate of Usis only makes as much sense as its unlikely thriving. Nature persists, and we will laugh and cry and write stories about it. That is how we make sense of a constantly changing earth.
It was this particular hemlock tree who towered high above the Americas, through the Age of Discovery, the Second Industrial Revolution and war after war after war.
And Usis still stretched its dense foliage until its shady grove was an entirely new ecosystem, a green moist oasis preferred by white-tailed deer, yellow coral fungi, hellbender salamanders and the rapidly disappearing piratebushes — black-throated green warblers, whose cries you’ll hear in Gambier at dawn, are known to nest almost exclusively in hemlocks.
It was this tree who watched the coming and going of our folk heroes, felt the thud of John Henry’s final hammer strike, heard the crash of Casey Jones’ last ride on a southbound ten-wheeler.
It was this tree who saw the Cherokee people exiled and conquered and slaughtered but still stood tall so that the nighttime wailing elk, whose routine path crossed through its shady grove, could use the familiarly intricate crown of limbs (“Usis” is the Tsalagi word for “antler”) as a waypoint, wiping their snot on Usis’s drooping branches and grazing onward.
It was this tree who could only watch in silence as the American chestnut gradually gave way to plague, and still stood tall as the plague began to feast upon its own species, and eventually on Usis itself.
And Usis, when foresters finally discovered it in January of 2007 and hastily began their healing procedure, knew sorrowfully that it was no use. Men can kill a giant, but only a god can save one. When hemlock wood burns, it howls and crackles like gunfire. Usis was silent by November.
THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight
Stand like druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Evangeline”
The eastern hemlock, whose adumbral mystique will forever live on in folklore, has indeed become a dying species after infestation by the invasive sap-sucking woolly adelgid in the 1950s.
The 19th-century poet Ann Sophia Stevens wrote of her friend Zadock Pratt, a tanner and hemlock caretaker: “So the Tanner loves that stout old tree, // …For well he knows that the hemlock bough // Will weep o’er his honored tomb.”
Who will weep when the hemlocks have all gone?
Note: I intend to write columns that function as obituaries for people, places and things that we have lost. If you have an idea for a future piece, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Kibler is a columnist for the Collegian. He is an undeclared major from Virginia Beach, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.