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The Bark Covered House
Chapter 19. Trees


THERE were two stately trees which stood near the center of the place. In view of their antiquity it seemed almost wrong to cut them. One was an elm which stood on the fiat of the Ecorse. The other was what we called a swamp white oak. It stood in a little hollow at the west end of the ridge (where we lived) about twenty rods north of the elm. They appeared as though they were about the same age. They were nearly the same size. They were five or six feet through at the butt.

Father often said that the tree recorded within itself a true record of its own age. After a tree was cut down, I have known him frequently to count the grains or yearly rings and from them extract a register by which he learned how many years old it was.

How my mind reaches back forty years and views again that venerable old oak and elm. Trees whose history and lives began before the first settlement of America. How familiar still their appearance to me, as they stood with their arms stretched out bidding me the most graceful salutations. They seemed almost like friends, at least there was some companionship about them, their forms were very familiar to me.

On the west side of the elm, just above the ground and running up about six feet, there was a huge knot which grew out of the side of the tree. It was large enough to stand upon, when upon it, but there was not room enough for us to stand upon it and chop. We had to build a scaffold around the tree, up even with the top of the knot, to stand upon. In that way we were able to cut the great tree down. It was a hard job and was attended with danger. When the tree started we had to get down very quickly and run back to a place of safety, for the tree was very angry in the last throes of its dissolution. It broke other trees down, tore other trees to pieces, broke off their limbs, bent other small ones down with it as it went, and held their tops to the earth. Other trees went nearly down with it but were fortunate enough to break its hold and gained again their equilibrium with such swiftness that their limbs which had been nearly broken off, yet, which they retained until they straightened, then their stopping so suddenly, the reaction caused the fractured and dry limbs to break loose, and they flew back of where we had been chopping. They flew like missiles of death through the air, and the scaffold upon which we stood but a minute before was smashed into slivers. In the mean time we were looking out for our own safety.

No man, unless he has experienced it himself, can have an adequate idea of the danger and labor of clearing a farm in heavy, timbered land. Then he knows something of the anxieties and hardships of a life in the woods: the walking, the chopping and sweating, the running and the dodging like Indians behind trees. He trusts to their protection to save him from falling trees and flying limbs, although he is often lacerated and bruised, jammed and torn by them. I knew a man and a boy in our town who were killed by falling limbs. Sometimes he is cut by the ax and is obliged to go home, over logs, between stumps and through brush, leaving a bloody trail behind him.

Father's farm was rescued from the wilderness and consecrated to the plow and husbandry through sweat and blood. We ofttimes encountered perils and were weary from labor, often times hungry and thirsty, often suffered from cold and heat, frequently destitute of comfortable apparel and condemned to toil as the universal doom of humanity—thus earning our bread by the sweat of our brows.

Father and I labored some years in sight of the great elm stump. It appeared like a giant, with a great hump on his back, overlooking the surrounding stumps. It was about eight feet high. But it was doomed to decay, and entirely disappeared long years ago.

The oak tree was more fortunate and escaped the fatal ax, a number of years after all the timber around it had been chopped and cleared away. On account of its greatness, and its having so nice a body, father let it stand as monarch of the clearing. But few came into our clearing without seeing his majesty's presence. His roots were immense. They had been centuries creeping and feeling their way along, extracting life from mother earth to sustain their gigantic body. The acorn, from which that oak grew, must have been planted long before, and the tree which grew from it have been dressed many times in its summer robe of green, and it was, doubtless, flourishing when the "Mayflower" left the English Channel. When she was slowly making her way from billow to billow, through the then almost unknown sea, bearing some of the most brave and liberty- loving men and women the world, at that time, could produce; when the hearts of the Pilgrim Fathers were beating high with hopes of liberty and escape from tyranny, when their breath came low and short for fear of what might await them; when they landed on the American shore—yes! when that little band of pilgrims were kneeling on Plymouth Rock, and offering up thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty, who had brought them safely o'er the trackless deep, that oak was quietly standing, gathering strength to make it what it was when we came to Michigan. There it had stood, ever since the days of yore, spreading its boughs over the generations of men who have long since passed away. Around it had been the Indian's camping and hunting ground. When we came to plow and work the ground near it I found some of their stone arrows which had been worked out very beautifully. Their edges and points showed very plainly where they had been chipped off in making. We also found stone hatchets, the bits of which were about two and a half inches broad and worked to an edge. They were about six inches long. The pole or head was round. From their appearance they must have been held in the hand using the arm for a helve. For an encounter with bruin or any other enemy, it is possible they bound a withe around the pole and used that as a handle. Much ingenuity and skill must have been required to work out their implements when they had nothing better with which to do it than other Stones.

I often picked up the arrows and hatchets and saved them as relics of past ages, knowing that they had been in other hands long years before. I have some of them now (1875). The stones from which they were made must have been brought from some distance as there were few other stones found in this part of the country.

If that oak could have talked, what a wild, wild story it might have told, not only of lost arrows and hatchets, but also of their owners, about whom the world has little knowledge. It might have told also of the hundreds of years it had stood there and showered down its acorns upon the earth, enough in one season to have planted a forest of its own kind; how often its acorns had been gathered by the Indian youth, and devoured by the wild beasts of the forest; how many times its leaves had been changed by the autumn frosts from a green to a beautiful golden hue; how the cold wind swept them off and they flew down in huddled races to the ground, carpeted and cushioned the earth, protected the roots and enriched the soil. How, after it had been shorn of its leaves, its life current had been sent back through the pores of its body to its roots and congealed by the cold freezing frosts of winter; how the wind sighed and moaned through its branches while it cracked and snapped with the frost. But there was to be an end to its existence. The remorseless ax was laid at its roots and there is nothing left of it, unless it be a few old oak rails. There are some moss-covered rails on the place yet that were made at an early day. How my thoughts go back and linger round that oak whose branches gave shelter to the deer, furnished them with food, protected the Indian and his home the place where I, so long afterward, advanced to manhood.

It is no wonder that Boston men are so careful in protecting their trees. With their usual care and foresight they have guarded the celebrated elm on Boston common. Thousands of the American people from every State in the Union, even from the Pacific coast, visit the beautiful city of Boston but are not satisfied until they visit the ancient elm, read its history, as far as known, from the iron plate, and gaze with admiration on the wonderful tree and the fence that surrounds it.

The full history of that tree is not known, but it reaches back prior to the settlement of Boston. It was a good sized tree in 1656. "A map of Boston made in 1722 showed the tree as one of the principal objects." That tree is a sacred relic of the past. Its branches waved over the heads of honored colonial ancestors.

Trees are our most beautiful and best antiquities. "It was a beautiful thought," says Ruskin, when God thought of making a tree and giving it a life so long." Another says: "What vicissitudes mark its life, almost tender with suggestion. Trees are the Methuselahs of nature. The famous Etna chestnut is a thousand years old. There is a cypress tree in Mexico, over forty feet in diameter, whose zones record nearly three thousand years. The baobab trees of the Green Cape are fully four thousand years old. The great dragon tree at Ortova, Teneriffe (recently said to be dying), is said to be five thousand years old— a life that runs parallel to almost the entire period of human chronology." No doubt some of those trees will last as long as time. Is it any wonder that I claim some companionship to trees, since I passed so many years of my youth among them? Trees often prevented sharp eves from seeing me, secreted me and helped me to luck, which was very gratifying to me. Trees, when it rained and the wind was piercing, have often protected, sheltered and kept me dry and comfortable for hours.

I frequently when at some distance from home, hunting, and night coming on, began traveling, as I supposed, toward home. I often came to tracks in the snow which, at first, I thought were made by some one else, but, upon a more particular examination, would find that they were my own tracks. Then I would know that I had been circling round and round, that the "wigwam was lost" and I had the gloomy prospect of remaining in the woods all night—"out of humanity's reach." Then I would trust to the trees, look at them, take their directions and start again in a new course. This would seem wrong to me, but I always came out right. Trees never deceived, but showed me the way home.

When I have been in the woods, hungry, trees furnished me food. When thirsty, they often supplied me with drink. When cold and almost freezing, trees have warmed and made me comfortable. Trees furnished most of the material for father's "bark-covered house," which sheltered us for more than two years.

If trees have done so much for one, surely all humanity have derived great good from them. The earth itself is adorned and beautified by trees.


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