Like the old argument about chickens and eggs, one sometimes hears a similar rhetorical discussion about the relative supremacy of roots and branches. Being both a would-be orchardist and lover of trees, and a father, grandfather and great grandfather, I find the implications not just fascinating, but profound. A not-so-long-ago experience brought me some new insights on the subject which may be worth sharing.
It was a warm New England Summer day, and random circumstances made it possible for us to make a visit to a weathered white farmhouse on a green hill overlooking the Vermont village of East Braintree (also known as Snowville). We were connected by marriage and long, enduring friendships to the family for whom this place was “home”. Some of them had been school-mates and even class-mates, and one of them was my sister-in-law. Because the matriarch of this family had just marked her 103rd birthday, we were met by numerous members of the extended clan. As we joined them beneath the spreading mantle of the huge tree which dominated the home’s front lawn, I counted five generations in happy attendance, including one 83-year old daughter of Grandma Jarvis who danced for us.
After paying our respects to the now bed-confined, but thoroughly lucid and even exuberant grand dame, obviously thrilled to be surrounded by her family and loved ones, we repaired to the picnic table situated in the shade of the old tree. Sitting there and listening to the happy memories being recounted by the assembled offspring of that one, pioneering family, I was struck by the significance of the occasion, and the very place in which we met.
Grandma Jarvis had been born Blanche Alta Carpenter on May 7th, 1897 in the nearby town of Randolph, shortly after William McKinley had been inaugurated as the nation’s 25th President, and as the first shipment of Yukon gold was about to ignite the great gold rush of 1898. Since that time – except for a few brief years – she had lived in this same white farmhouse, overlooking these same green fields and wooded hilltops. In this same home, she had given birth to all but two of her nine children, and it would be here that she would finally pass from this world just a few months short of her 105th birthday, having lived to see the closing days of the 19th century, the war-torn years of the 20th, and the birth of the 21st. In all, she would have seen the reins of government pass between the hands of eighteen Presidents and witness the assassinations of two of them.
For the last twenty-seven years of her life, Grandma Jarvis would live as a proud and independent widow, continuing to work the family farm and milk her herd of cows right up until the age of 96.
And then there was the tree.
To mark her 16th birthday in May of 1914, as Europe began to slip into World War I, Blanche was presented with an unusual gift: a young tree. A Carolina Poplar to be exact, and I can picture the occasion as the family gathered to see its planting, right there in the front yard of the Jarvis homestead, under a Vermont summer sun, much like the one shining down on our celebratory gathering nearly nine decades later. Now it took eight of us adults, joining hands to circle the tree’s circumference, a distance measuring twenty-three feet, eight-and-three-quarters inches. Now, Blanche Alta Carpenter Jarvis was the mother of nine, grandmother of 31, great-grandmother to 54, and great-great grandmother to another 9!
My mind was filled with a picture of all the history which had passed during the life of that tree, and that of the lady now lying in that faded farmhouse, and the way in which their lives had been linked together. The tree somehow surviving years of summer drought and winter blizzard, its roots tapping into unseen sources of strength, and Grandma Jarvis, whose life straddled three century marks and whose branches reached now across generations of human time.