Thursday, May 22, 2008

Elm Tree

A mature American Elm tree is a majestic—and increasingly rare—sight in the northeastern U.S.A. Only about one in 100,000 is resistant to Dutch elm disease, which killed off a hundred million trees starting in the 1930s.

When I saw this one in the neighboring town, I wanted to paint its portrait. It was a hazy day, so the distant trees were pale, and the sky was a cool, milky color.

The study is in oil, 8x10 inches. The branches arch outward from the central trunk, drooping downward at the outer edges. A poison ivy vine scales the trunk. Deer have browsed the bottom four feet of the ivy. A golfer stands in the shadow practicing her golf swing.

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman, in her book Six Trees, wrote about a similar elm:
There was not in the whole countryside another tree which could compare with him. He was matchless. Never a stranger passed the elm but stopped, and stared, and said or thought something about it. Even dull rustics looked, and had a momentary lapse from vacuity. The tree was compelling. He insisted upon recognition of his beauty and grace. Let one try to pass him unheeding and sunken in contemplation of his own little affairs, and lo! He would force himself out of the landscape, not only upon the eyes, but the very soul.
Wikipedia on the American Elm, link.
Website dedicated to saving the American Elm, link.
USA Today article about the return and resurgence, link.


Erik Bongers said...

Indeed, it's not a landscape but a portrait.

Unknown said...

Wow! What a site!

Dillon Thompson said...

I've been a huge fan for years. Thanks for dropping all the science. Your knowledge is priceless and much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Reading about the ivy missing its' lower 4 feet and the golfer, gave this an instant sense of perspective.
What a gorgeous homage to a majestic tree.

Your site is encyclopedic in it's scope and always well worth the visit.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful portrait, and a amazing painting. I wonder how old the tree is.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everyone. Jason, I also wondered how old the tree might be. They say they can be 300 years old.

When I wrote the post, I didn't have the heart to tell the epilogue of this story. The summer after I did the painting, the tree caught the infection and died. It was cut down by the autumn. Now I want to do more portraits of these old grandfather trees, because you never know.....

DPetersen said...

At first I thought the ivy were trunk sprout-offs (desperate attempts the tree makes to send off as many new shoots in any direction to soak up more sunlight) which is usually a sign of infection, though with it being ivy, I guess that wasn't the exact case.

There is still a pretty large elm in the front yard of the house I grew up in. I'm surprised it never was infected (crosses fingers)

Erik Bongers said...

Died? Owch...
Dutch Elm Disease?
Now I'm Flemish(Dutch speaking Belgian) and I have nothing to do with our neighbours, them Dutch folk!
But I bet that golf player was Dutch...wasn't she coughing while standing so close to that tree?

Some years ago, an elm tree(I think) in front of our Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts was cut down to avoid spreading of the disease.
They put a platified cardboard on the trunc to inform people of the reason for this 'euthanasia'.
I'm sure without the explanation city hall would have received loads of complaints.
I sat on a bench close by the trunc for a while and observed a lot of people getting quite emotional with that loss.

René PleinAir said...

Euhm I don't know about that Dutch in the disease, but it's not funny at all! In Amsterdam many trees are cut down also, .. so pity.

At least you made a wonderful tribute to this marvelous tree species

James Gurney said...

Yes, the name "Dutch elm disease" is unfair, since the infection is believed to come from Asia, and the name came from scientists in Amsterdam who first identified it. Maybe it should be called "Dutch-discovered elm disease."