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Our Wise Old Trees

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

We hear a lot about the historic buildings in our community. We feel bad every time one is lost or not appreciated. Trees are often overlooked when we talk about our local history. Many of our beautiful trees have been around for quite some time. They are often expendable though in the name of progress and pleasure. The fact is trees can live without us but we cannot live without trees, and there are some scientists who insist that trees can solve our current climate problems.

Trees supply us with oxygen, food, shelter, fuel, beauty and shade. They provide exercise when the fallen leaves have to be raked in the fall. And fun for kids who get to jump into the piles. According to James Ewing (Viewpoint, Plant a Tree – Plant a Trillion Trees) in the Southampton Press, 8/15/2019, we are producing more CO2 than the Earth can absorb and we have overloaded the Earth’s normal, self-sustaining carbon cycle. Forest restoration is the greatest single global effort we have to address the cause and effects of climate change. If we act now, this could cut carbon dioxide by up to 25%. A single tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.

I’m not sure when my love for trees started. I suspect it was when I was just a few years old. I often rested in a hammock underneath the trees in my grandparent’s front yard looking up at the branches with a feeling of contentment. I also grew up with nine huge pine trees in our yard in the Southampton Village. My father helped his father plant those trees when he was a young boy. They were tiny saplings. By the time I came a long they were giants. One of those trees got me into trouble when my curiosity got the best of me and I was old enough to climb. I don’t know how far up I got before I got scared and called for my mother to help me. She came out of the house and told me that I had to wait until my father came home for lunch. I have no memory of the incident but I held on until he came home and rescued me. After one of those pines blew down during a hurricane and crushed my parent’s garage, they all had to be taken down. I have a candle holder that my father made for me from the wood of one of those trees. When I was in the 6th grade, I remember walking into Mrs. Bristow’s English class and seeing the poem “Trees” by Alfred Joyce Kilmer written on the blackboard. We often had to copy poems off the board and memorize them. “I think that I shall never see… A poem lovely as a tree…” This obviously left an impression in my young impressionable mind.

In 1640 when Southampton was founded, according to Bob Keene (once Southampton Town Historian), except for the glacial ridge to the north, the land was mostly treeless. Shinnecock Hills was both treeless and shrub less, nothing but a series of sand dunes. South of today’s Montauk Highway was Great Plains, Little Plains, and a huge meadow. Much of this open land became fertile farmland that helped sustain the early settlers and a fenced in area for animals (gin).

In 1881 the Village Improvement Association of Southampton was formed. One of their original projects was the planting of trees and shrubs in public places. Any of those trees that survived would be 139 years old now. East Hampton is known for their beautiful trees along Main Street thanks to the Ladies Village Improvement Society which formed in 1895. In 1907 an LVIS tree committee was formed and they have been taking care of the village trees ever since. One of my father’s most vivid memories was of all the trees that were lost in the villages during the 1938 hurricane. It had been raining for days which left the ground soft. When the hurricane hit the trees uprooted like dominoes. Wind (and Chainsaws) are terrible enemies of trees.

Miss Juliano (now Mrs. Wicker) was my son’s second grade teacher at the Southampton Elementary School. Every year she took her class on a pilgrimage to visit “Old Elmer” just down the road on Pine Street. Old Elmer still stands on Pine St., probably one of the oldest if not the oldest tree in the village. I hope at least some of Miss Juliano’s former students appreciated that simple lesson.

Soon after my husband and I married we built a house on a piece of woodland. When the land had to be cleared, I insisted that not one tree be cut down that didn’t have to be. Mr. Bennett patiently worked around as many trees as possible while he was operating the machine that dug the hole for the foundation. People were starting to think of me as a tree fanatic. I didn’t care, I was starting to think of some people as tree butchers. Many years ago, I joined the campaign to save Tuckahoe Woods. Like the Pine Barons, Tuckahoe Woods was slowly being chipped away by developers. Today it is a very unique ecosystem with beautiful hiking trails.

We have so many beautiful trees in our area. Many of our local streets are named for trees. Have you ever noticed the beautiful canopy on Layton Avenue? How about the famous Sycamores, AKA London Plain Trees, on Wyandanch Lane? How about the old beauties behind the Southampton Art Center? Did you know that Linden Lane was named for the linden trees that were rescued from the shipwreck Louis Philippe in 1842 and planted there?

Did you know that there is a part of some trees called burl? I call it the keloid scar on a tree. I learned this from Morgan MacWhinnie many years ago when he showed me a beautiful burl bowl at the Halsey House in Southampton. He told me that Native Americans and early settlers discovered that this scar is especially hard wood and it was used to carve bowls that were very durable. There is also a beautiful large wooden shovel which is part of the collection at the Halsey House. It is carved from one piece of wood, and I find it fascinating to look at.

Over the years I have photographed many trees on the east end. I hope everyone will spend some time noticing and appreciating the beautiful trees in our village and maybe plant some of your own. If trees could talk, the stories they would tell.


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