The Old Lady’s Identity Revealed

She’s an Elm.

Many thanks go to the Arbor Day Foundation’s Online Tree Identification Guide, which is a wonderful resource for all matters arboreal.

And now, some Elm Fun Facts!

*Tolerance of air pollution made it a favorite tree for city plantings (until the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic).
*Wood used to make wheels, chair seats, coffins, and drain pipes.
*Bark was one of the main food sources during the Norwegian famine of 1812.

Of course, I couldn’t resist looking up some of the more esoteric Elm lore as well.  This post by Ellen Evert Hopman has a wonderful collection of beliefs from both Old and New World sources.  Some of the more interesting associations are those of the Elm with Elves by the Anglo-Saxons, the factoid that elms were favorite trees for Cornish Maypoles, and the many medicinal and household uses of the Elm by various Indigenous American tribes.

From my own experience with Old Lady, she is quite the mothering figure, dominating the side of the hill (our neighbor is constantly griping that she’s “ruining his view”).  She’s a buffet for several woodpeckers, as well as a perch for hawks passing though.  Blue jays broadcast the movements of our cat from her branches, and mourning doves perform their courtships under her auspices.  She is also a shelter for several varieties of plants, from wild roses to the ubiquitous Northeastern bane, poison ivy, to clusters of violets and clover, who in turn feed the bees captured sunlight.  I can’t vouch about elves, but she’s definitely an anchor for various energies running through and about the landscape.

Yep, she’s a grand old dame, and I have the feeling that she’s seen a lot here on our little hill.  I worry that she’s entering the twilight of her career (not that I’d tell her that), but she keep coming back with renewed vigor each spring.  Sitting beneath her branches in the morning sun, I can only hope that she whispers even a little bit of her wisdom to me.


Nature abhors a vacuum, and if I can only walk with sufficient carelessness I am sure to be filled.
—Henry David Thoreau

Old LadyEach morning, I try to take the first meal of the day outside under the Old Lady in our back yard.

The Old Lady is a tree of a venerable age and (at the moment) indeterminate species.  She’s wild and gangly, glorious in her unkempt mass of suckers and half-dead branches.  Every spring we wonder if she’s going to make it through another winter, and every spring her masses of buds swell defiantly against old age.

As I was sitting underneath her arms today, I kept being distracted by the line of SUVs that had driven down to the bottom of our hill, disgorging several children to wait for the school bus (because apparently walking 500 feet to the bus stop is way to taxing for the little…dears).

I admit to being more than a little irritated all this activity.  It was ruining my morning communion with Nature!  How dare they!

But as the bus rumbled away (and the caffeine-eyed parents lumbered away), I was struck by the simple fact the during this whole drama, very little of the wildlife in our neighborhood had been disturbed.  The song birds were still proclaiming spring lust and virility, the cat was still sunning himself on the hill, and the ants continued their morning march towards the compost bins.  The Old Lady certainly seemed unruffled by the disturbance.  In fact, I was the only one upset by the whole thing.

Admittedly, I would like to pride myself on being one of those enlightened beings who sees themselves as no different from her animal and plant brethren.  Some days, I’ll even succeed in this paradigm for a fraction of my waking hours.  But if I’m brutally honest, it’s way too easy to fall back into the dominant Western thinking pattern of being (at best) a steward of nature–at worst, her conqueror.  The division between man and the natural world is so ingrained in our culture, I’m beginning to despair at ever being able to adopt a world-view where the two are no longer separate.

Western culture, as a whole, is still quite young—I would even venture to say immature–and we seem unable to plan ahead more than a few months or (more likely) the next easy meal.  It is our arrogance in believing ourselves to be apart from or above the invisible workings of the world that have led us to many of the current environmental predicaments we now face.  We are swimming in abundance, but have forgotten that ours is not the last generation to walk this planet, and that we’re squandering a million years of stored sunlight on our current techno-industrial banquet.

I just hope we can stop the rampant gorging before we find ourselves too fat to leave the table.

But what does all this have to do with soccer moms and raucous school children?  Everything, in fact.  I was annoyed by what I perceived as an intrusion, a disruption of the natural order of things—proof that I was regarding humans and all their toys and tools as something other than “natural.”  I was unconsciously perpetuating the false dichotomy of separation between human and “everything else.”  The very indifference that surprised me at first is the same proof that we are a part of this world no matter what our philosophers and priests tells us.

The illusion of separation must shatter.  We must allow ourselves to see the threads that connect each of us to the greater web of life on this planet.  We need to be mindful of how our choices affect all of our siblings, not just the bipedal ones.  Otherwise, Mom may decide a harder lesson is in order, one that we cannot adapt to so readily.