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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Paying Homage to a Lowly Native Tree


A tree is a place, not an object, it’s an island in the air

where our sight may live awhile, unburdened

and free from this heavy, earthen body.


-      Joseph Stroud, “Homage to the Black Walnut in Downtown Santa Cruz,” in the collection titled Below Cold Mountain


Fall is a good time to pay tribute to trees in general, particularly here in the northern Midwest as tree foliage loses its chlorophyll and blazes with bright colors for a few short weeks. 

When I look back over the years, I see that many different tree species have obsessed me in different seasons of my life. One year (while reading Swann’s Way) it was hawthorns, in the field and in books. I could think of almost nothing but hawthorns for months on end. Another year it was old apple trees – and everywhere I looked, I saw them. Many autumns have seen me swooning over the varied colors of ash trees, from butterscotch yellow to deep plummy purple, while during many winters in the woods I’ve been entranced by paper-thin, almost transparent beech foliage hanging on against winter’s wind and snow. I love the catalpa that appeared out of nowhere one year as a mere stripling in our backyard, now a stately tall tree that flowers for us each spring, and I also love its modest Arizona cousin, the desert willow, which is not a true willow at all but another member of the small genus Catalpa.

Catalpa in Michigan

Catalpa flower

Desert willow in Arizona

Beginning to flower

Speaking of true willows, the family Salicaceae encompasses the genus Populus, those species I call (after their name) the “people trees,” and this is how Burton V. Barnes and Warren H. Wagner, Jr., introduce them in Michigan Trees: A Guide to the Trees of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region.

The genus Populus belongs to the willow family, and the aspens, cottonwoods, and poplars resemble the willows, especially in flower and fruit characters.


Flowers on pendulous catkins (delicious little word!) are pollinated by the wind, and leaves flutter in the breeze like whispers of a conversation just far enough away that the words cannot be distinguished. Aspens, balsam poplars, and cottonwoods inhabit very different ecosystems, but it is the lowly aspen, known locally in northern Michigan as popple, that occupies my mind this fall. Populus tremuloides, our popple, is Colorado’s aspen. Westerners (without our beautiful maples) rhapsodize over their aspens, while we here pretty much take our popples for granted, but this year I can’t stop thinking about them and combing the Leelanau roadsides with my eyes, hungry for popples.


As 2021 has been a record mushroom year, it seems only fitting to note here that Michigan’s largest living organism is a fungus growing in the Upper Peninsula that covers over 30 acres, but another reason I mention the U.P. fungus is that it has something common with our popple trees. You may think you are looking at a grove of individuals, but it’s far more likely that the trees you see all arise from a common underground, nearly indestructible root system (try to get rid of popples sometime!), which makes the trees genetically identical clones of one another and all physically interconnected. See the explanation and some fabulous photographs of aspen out west here. Within their genus, Barnes and Wagner tell us this about popples: 

…The aspens are boreal and northern species, adapted to a cold climate and either moist or dry soils. They reproduce abundantly by seeds under the right site conditions. Aspens are also adapted to fire and sprout profusely from roots when their trunks are scorched and killed.

Is Utah’s Pando aspen grove the largest popple clone in the world? Colorado has challenged the Utah clone, but these things are difficult to measure. 


My late Uncle Jim, a veteran of the Civilian Conservation Corps, had my undying admiration for his ability to identify trees in winter, when there were no leaves to match against field guide illustrations. Overall shapes of trees helps (the few remaining elm trees in the landscape stand out easily with their vase shape), and bark is another big help. The bark of Populus tremuloides is 

Thin, creamy white to yellowish green [when young], smooth, becoming fissured and gray [with age] with long, flat-topped ridges at the base of old trees or trees in deep shade.

Popples don’t care much for shade (the old ones you'll find there have no doubt been overtaken by other encroaching species), so you’ll often see them at the outer edges of woods and forests, clustered together like a herd of shy young deer, nervous about venturing too far out into the open. My advice today, though, is to take note of them before the wind has completely unclothed them for the winter. Individually they may not look like much, but in groups they are graceful and lovely, especially when the sun catches their dancing leaves, and these sweet little native trees are worthy of our Michigan attention.

Books Read Since Last Listed


148. Rashid, Mark. Lessons From a Ranch Horse (nonfiction)

149. Mosley, Walter. Walkin’ the Dog (fiction)

150. Mowat, Farley. The Dog Who Wouldn't Be (nonfiction)


Currently reading: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe



Peasy News


Next week, the first week of my annual seasonal retirement (Saturday, October 30, is the last bookstore day of the 2021 season), we are taking Peasy to begin some special professional training (training for all three of us), and I’ll let you know how that develops. Pursuing social skills with our special needs dog, as well as addressing long-postponed household projects and issues, means we won’t be leaving for Arizona much before early December, but what needs doing needs doing, and we must needs get at it.

As always, thanks for supporting Dog Ears Books,  thanks for reading, and please feel welcome to share Books in Northport with your friends and neighbors.


Jeanie Furlan said...

Wow! I love that you love your trees! And that you understand them so well, as if they shyly tell you about their lives. The photos help to follow their stories, and you have some really pretty ones. We were in Maine just last week on a wonderful visit with old theater & music friends. The colors when the sun came out were stunning so our walks around their lake with the dogs were just so calming and beautiful. It didn’t know what I was looking at, though! You would have been a great guide!
It is a big step for you two and Peasy with the training program! I admire you for making that commitment with Peasy, and I wish you all the very best! We’re all rooting for you!!

P. J. Grath said...

The three of us met the special trainer on Tuesday, Jeanie. She's great, but it's still unclear how much rehabilitation we can expect with Peasy. He is -- mostly! -- so sweet and loving and cute with us at home that I keep wishing the trainer could see the, instead of his goosey, nervous, unpredictable public persona. We'll see where this leads us, anyway.

Coming back home, we were driving north, with long spells of sunshine coming from behind us to light up the trees, all bright orange and yellow and red against the dark clouds to the north. Truly spectacular! The tamaracks are lovely, too, bright yellow right now, though soon to lose their needles for winter -- the only conifer that drops its foliage like the deciduous trees. Oaks, however, are mostly still green! Our late fall is really stretching itself out this year. Tuesday's snow was a surprise, coming as it did with no previous hard frosts to prepare us.

One of my Michigan bookseller friends considers Maine her true heartland and wants her ashes (someday) scattered on Mt. Katahdin. How lovely that you were able to get together with old friends in Maine at such a beautiful time of year!