Death of a Sycamore Tree

For a very long time a giant American sycamore tree lived just south of Hopkins Hall at the heart of the Ohio State University campus. The National Arborist Association certified the tree as having been alive at the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787; a bronze plaque installed near the tree’s base reminded passersby of the designation. Today, the long life of the so-called “Constitution Tree” ended.

Sycamore leaf.
Remnants.

Having stood for more than a quarter of a millennium, this sycamore was a true witness tree. It was surely home to countless generations of squirrels, birds, and insects through its long life and well loved by humans, too. When Native Americans walked the banks of the Olentangy River (Keenhongsheconsepung as they called it), gathering flint, the tree must have been just another sycamore among an expansive forest of hardwoods. The tree stood silently as hundreds of slaves slipped by its outstretched branches following a nearby Underground Railroad path to freedom. Its bright green leaves might have felt the heat from the flames that consumed the nineteenth-century Armory building, a few hundred feet to the east, on a June day in 1958. Ohio State’s Constitution Tree lived with the students of every class since the first graduated in 1878.

Earlier this summer, the tree lost a massive limb in a storm, an event that must have spurred a closer look at its health. It bore evidence of earlier substantial pruning and, to my untrained eye, did not look like a very healthy tree. Undoubtedly, the concrete sidewalks surrounding the sycamore on all sides and extending almost to the drip line accelerated the tree’s demise. That said, whoever is in charge of caring for the trees at Ohio State University has a very big job and does it well. I am sure the decision to remove the Constitution Tree was not taken lightly.

Donald Culross Peattie, the most prolific nature writer of the twentieth century, wrote of the American sycamore in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. “By the beautiful bright smooth bark, the sycamore is known as far off as the color can be descried; it shines through the tops of the forest even in the depth of summer when the leafy crowns are heaviest. In winter, against a stormy sky, it looks wonderfully living amidst all the appearances of lifelessness in other deciduous trees.” Indeed, Platanus occidentalis is a constant companion of the forest here.

I am grateful that I was able to know this tree for a small part of its life, for the shade it gave me at lunchtime on a few hot days, and for giving me food for thought every time I passed it. That something so large and of such old age can be felled by three men in a matter of hours leaves me in a contemplative mood. Members of the Ohio State University class of 2020 will descend upon campus a few short weeks from now and almost none of them will know that a majestic sycamore tree once reigned over a small corner of their new home. But other trees abound here and I know that somewhere another sycamore sapling pushes its roots into the earth and stretches toward the sun.

My thanks to the anonymous arborist from Russell Tree Experts who allowed me to interrupt his work, answered my questions, and indulged my request for an offcut that was destined for the chipper.

Leaving National Geographic

Two weeks ago, I mentioned to a close friend my growing annoyance at the recent changes that the National Geographic Society has made to its namesake magazine. The objectivity of some articles has become questionable and a few issues back the “letters to the editor” section disappeared completely after having been previously reduced. In the September 2015 issue, the editor introduced a new “Special Investigations Unit” which struck me as an ill-conceived branding effort; I always viewed the articles as special investigations because of the very nature of the publication. The magazine has been marching toward sensationalism for at least a year and it seems this will continue. The expanded use of integrated advertising (for example, a series of ads for Google Search across several pages tied in to the articles on the facing pages) discredits the magazine’s authority. My friend, also an avid reader of the magazine, noticed many of these changes too.

I’ve been reading National Geographic Magazine monthly since 1996—almost twenty years. Before that, I read the children’s version, National Geographic World, and in high school I subscribed to National Geographic Traveler. My subscription started out as a yearly Christmas gift from my great-grandma and my grandma has continued the tradition. In my teens, I used to pore over the supplement maps that came tucked into the magazine and would dream of traveling the world. Growing up in a tiny, rural town, National Geographic Magazine brought world culture, history, and science to my house every month. Now, I can’t remember the last supplement map that was included in the magazine.

As an adult living in Washington, D.C., I frequently passed by National Geographic headquarters and felt proud to be a member. I went to a lecture there by one of my favorite authors, Simon Winchester, and spoke to him about a railroad book he was thinking of writing. On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I went to the amazing exhibition that National Geographic mounted in their museum space. The society and its magazine have been important and meaningful parts of my life and part of my identity.

Last night, I learned the following:

“In exchange for $725 million, the National Geographic Society passed the troubled magazine and its book, map and other media assets to a partnership headed by 21st Century Fox, the Murdoch-controlled company that owns the 20th Century Fox movie studio, the Fox television network and Fox News Channel” (Paul Farhi, “National Geographic gives Fox control of media assets in $725 million deal,” Washington Post, September 9, 2015).

This may not seem like a big deal to some people, but to me it’s huge. I can see now that the magazine’s changes over the last year or two have been symptoms of the proverbial “moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic” syndrome. It’s difficult not to feel betrayed, in a way, by the society of which I’ve been a member for over half my life. I don’t need to comment on the new owner as its reputation precedes it. The recent changes to the fundamental character of National Geographic Magazine and now this sellout make me sad to no longer desire a membership in the society.

Making a Mallet

White oak, pecan, and walnut mallet.
White oak, pecan, and walnut mallet.

Mallets are the driving force behind chisels, the workhorses of hand-tool woodworking. For a couple of years I’ve owned a cheap wooden mallet that was mass produced in some far-flung country and, although it worked fine, it had no character. This weekend I made a mallet that’s imbued with meaning and should last for the rest of my life. The head is made from American white oak—the king of the forest—leftover from my boatbuilding project in 2012. The handle is made from pecan sapwood that came from a tree that grew at my best friend’s rural, childhood home. Through the years, my friend and I have spent untold hours there hanging out and having loads of fun; it’s one of my favorite places to be. Just after Christmas in 2013, my carpenter grandpa helped me mill one of the pecan logs in his workshop and I’ve had the wood drying for a year and a half, waiting for a special project like this mallet. The handle is held in place by wedges of walnut that I got in Virginia when I lived there.

Milling a pecan log on the table saw with grandpa.
Milling a pecan log on the table saw with grandpa.

The finished tool has a sturdy solidness and weight in my hand, physically and symbolically. When I hold this mallet and use it in my woodworking, I’ll be holding a tool whose parts are tied to people and places that mean so much to me. I’ll think of my friend and her family and the memories we’ve made and I’ll think, too, of my grandpa, who’s fighting cancer. A tool as simple as a mallet can be used not only to strike chisels, but also to strike a chord of memory.