Even for gardeners who love all plants, we have a tendency to view annuals, perennials and woody plants differently, and we tend to think of trees as having eternal life. While our gardens may be filled with annuals that we add each season and perennials that warm us as we see them return year after year, we plant trees not just for the season or for our own pleasure, but with posterity in mind. When Susan Wissler, the Executive Director of The Mount, called me about two sugar maples in distress at the historic home of Edith Wharton, I could hear her anguish about the situation.
Of course, in an age where many trees are struggling against climate disruption and pests and diseases, such as those decimating populations of ashes and hemlocks throughout our region, we can all identify with the sense of loss when a tree reaches the end of its life, whether that is due to old age or other causes. My former partner struggled even when I pruned the trees on our property, even though it helped to maintain their health and form. He would watch as I used my moon-shaped pruning saw to shape each tree, intending to prevent breakage that might open the tree up to disease or cause damage to its bark and cambium tissue. I could hear his sigh as each crossing or broken branch fell to the ground. He saw each cut as a loss, and he fretted about each tree and its long-term health. Eventually, he came to see this care as essential to their well-being.
For Susan Wissler, however, the loss of the trees themselves was not the only thing on her mind; she was also concerned about their role in the planned landscape of The Mount. The gardens at The Mount were created by Edith Wharton in concert with her niece, the landscape designer Beatrix Farrand, and in designing the road leading up to the forecourt of the house, Farrand curved the road to pass between these two sugar maples which were already there when she began her design work. The narrow road that led between these two trees gave them a purpose, one often given to a pair of trees in a designed landscape; they create the moment of transition or crossing over. The trees frame the view of the house as one heads up the drive, almost announcing to visitors that they have arrived as they pass beneath the leafy canopies.
Susan called me, knowing about my previous work in garden preservation at the Garden Conservancy, and as the current Chair of the Historic Landscape committee of the American Public Garden Association. The two maples had been damaged by high winds and seemed compromised. As she awaited a report from the arborist about safety considerations, she did what good leaders do: she sought counsel (and consolation) on how to move forward if the trees where indeed deemed a safety concern. She had long appreciated the value of these trees and they had been given great care over the years, through careful pruning and maintenance, including the cabling of their branches to prevent breakage. And for this, I assured her, she should take comfort that she had done her best to keep them in the garden. We compiled a list of other experts to consult, and discussed her options in the event that the trees should need to come down. For example, the trunks could be left, to honor what had been, or they could be moved to another spot on the site and allowed to decay while a new pair of sugar maples could be planted in their stead. I reached out to a friend at Monticello (where they have faced similar decisions about historic trees), and she kindly pointed out that old trees really don’t ever die. Instead, they go on to serve a different purpose in the habitat. As insects and fungi break these trunks down over the years, the insects serve as a source of food for birds and the fungi break the tree down into duff that feeds the woodland soil. In this manner, the trees go back into the landscape and the ecosystem as a whole.
This concept of leaving snags, as these trunks are often called, was first introduced to me at Wing Haven, a historic garden and house in Charlotte, North Carolina, where its original owners, Elizabeth and Edwin Clarkson, built an entire landscape to strengthen their relationship with the birds that they loved seeing outside of their windows, and even in their house. Throughout their garden, they had left behind eight-foot stumps of trees that had been taken down by old age and hurricanes, so they could be viewed as living bird feeders. The Clarksons saw their garden (and house) as at one with nature. They developed a symbiotic relationship between themselves and their winged friends, even inviting the birds, Snow-White style, into their house, where ashtrays of birdseed provided further sustenance. The snags in their garden were a legacy left by the Clarksons at Wing Haven to ensure that nature and the garden would evolve beyond their own lifetimes.
Back at The Mount, a similar relationship tying together the history of a site, the plants that comprise it and its future, required addressing. And as we gathered information about how to approach these trees, it seemed, just as at Wing Haven, a more complex relationship between nature, history and the planned landscape was called for. As we discussed the spirit of the place and the intent of Farrand and Wharton in approaching the landscape, the conversation evolved. We were no longer simply looking at what Wharton and Farrand had put in place in the past, but how that vision moves into the present and the future, honoring the past while adapting and embracing the inevitable changes that will come, all the while never losing sight of the garden’s identity and spirit. This moment of loss provided a path forward, not just for these two trees and the drive to the house, but for an approach the garden as a whole, as climate change, invasive plants, and pests and disease continue to impact the landscape in the years ahead. Gardens are not preserved in amber; they evolve and respond to the changing world and conditions around them.
And in her efforts to balance the nuances of this moment, I applaud Susan Wissler for trying to maintain the best of what was with the best of what can be. As she and the staff, board, community, and advisors to The Mount move forward on a plan of action for these trees and the rest of the landscape, I have no doubt that decisions will take into consideration the past, present, and future. This, to my mind, is good garden-making and a smart approach to garden conservation.
The sadness of the loss of these trees is lightened by an understanding that the landscape from which they hail is being stewarded to be true to itself for generations to come.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.