Why big trees? My personal story.

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#1)  Why big trees? My personal story.

Postby John Harvey » Sat Apr 12, 2014 12:21 am

Just something I typed up tonight, maybe you can relate?

People often ask me why I run around the country chasing big trees. They ask me how I can “hunt” something that cant run or move. They ask me why these giants of the forest are so important to me. The answer is not really a simple one. I believe I was destined to find them. I believe this because there were many incidents in my life that led me in this direction.

When I was a small child I had a vivid, translucent, dream. I was lost inside a thick forest of sky scraping trees. I had no direction or purpose. Tangled in thick and thorn I struggled on until I came out into a clearing, a grassy glade of soft sunlight. Before me, upon a plateau, was a giant tree, a true “father of the forest”. Its gnarled, twisting trunk, seemed suspended high in the air. It was a species no longer found in our world. Its girth still matches the largest redwoods I have seen in person to this day. Its un-tapering height still has no earthly rival. As I gazed upon it, a deep peace came over me. I felt found. I had answers and justification for the wilderness I had traversed. An ancientness covered my soul. Over the years I have had thousands of similar dreams but none like the first.

My first reality based experience with a large tree was when I was 11 years old. Two of my friends and I were trying to blaze a path to a fishing hole through a second growth tulip poplar forest. We went astray and came upon the edge of a farmers field. When we climbed the fence, there was a massive tulip poplar standing before us. I had always carried the memory of my dream and this seemed eerily similar to me. All three of us stood there for a minute admiring the tree. It stood around 140' high and 22' around the base. Its trunk only seemed to increase in size as it rose. It was definitely old growth and many times older than the trees around it. When I mentioned the tree to my father and other locals in the area, they all knew of it. Many of them had played inside its hollow trunk as children. Even my friends 85 year old grandmother claimed it to be a giant when she was a child. This experience didn’t change my life until I took on a new job many years later. A job my sister had found for me when I was out of work and desperate.

 As an employee of a tree trimming service and a subcontractor of the power company, I spent my days high in a bucket, cutting branches away from power lines. Sometimes I was on the ground chipping the logs and branches that fell from above. It was hard, dirty, and dangerous work, but the pay was fair and for a twenty three year old without a college degree, it was a blessing. Sure, poison ivy year round, dog bites, reckless drivers, possible loss of limbs to chain saws and wood chippers, falling logs, and risk of electrocution isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is something about one of the worlds most dangerous jobs that assures a young man that he is a man. The crew was filled with real men; burly, hairy, strong, yet mostly uneducated specimens of manhood. This is why it always impressed me when the men began talking about the trees they were trimming. They knew everything about them. Most of the men were veterans and knew how to identify over one hundred different types of trees. They knew their size potential, could estimate their ages, identify their flowers and fruits, and most of all, knew the easiest ways to chop them down. You see, most of the job was in fact trimming, but there were always jobs when felling was required as well. I never minded felling a tree if the job called for it but one job in particular made me uneasy. Next to a road, wedged between power lines and a golf course, was a gigantic Silver Maple. The foreman placed his hand on the massive trunk , turned to the crew and said, “Boys this the second largest Silver Maple in the state, and today she has to come down. “ The tree had been trimmed many times before but was growing too large to be in its location, so the decision was made. I stood next to the bucket truck and watched as one of my crew removed the top branches. Later two of the more experienced men sawed through the trunk and felled the giant. After I helped cut the downed tree into smaller pieces, I walked over to the stump. I got down on my hands and knees and started counting the rings of the tree. One, two, three…eighty-five, eighty-six, eighty-seven…two hundred ten, two hundred eleven, two hundred twelve …Two hundred and thirty years old, or at least that’s what I thought I counted. This tree was alive before the Declaration of Independence and it took less than two hours to bring it down. Although it didn’t change my opinion on felling trees, it did put a tinge of sadness in my heart, and more importantly, peaked my interest in the history of New Jersey’s largest and oldest trees. The rest of my time on the job focused on saving trees rather than destroying them. That summer, I would call up my friends, return to the woods, and rediscover my ancient tulip poplar once again, this time with a whole new admiration.

Over the years I made a point to visit this poplar on the most important days of my life. Through grief and joy, I was looking for answers. I sought the peace I remembered from that slumber so long ago. My girlfriends knew her. My family saw her. The day my grandmother died, I visited her. The morning my first child was born, I sat beneath her branches. When I had a big decision to make, I meditated there with her.
One morning in late 2012 I made my way back through the forest and found that the tree had fallen in a storm a week earlier. Several smaller and weaker trees were shattered in the fall. I had lost a friend. I took one of her last live leaves home with me. It is nestled inside an album next to my first photo of the tree.

Over the years I have beheld some of the worlds largest, tallest, and oldest. I have found lost and forgotten giants and wandered through secret and hidden groves of enchanted trees. I may have dreamed, but I never dreamed anything like this. Wide awake and full of wonder, I’m still amazed at the natural treasures in our world.  In spite of this, people continue to ask me the same questions. Why search? Why the trees? Why carry around my childhood dream? I answer with this...

I’ve always found peace in the quiet and solitary places. I’ve drawn my inspiration from the forest and mountains. I have learned that the most perfect peace one can find is alone, surrounded by the arms of nature and God. I can only imagine what it would have been like to explore America when it was an untamed and wild forest. The great unknown and the possibility of discovery has always enchanted me.
I have lived so many places and I have lost so much; my dearest friends, my closest lovers, and myself at times. The changes I have experienced have led me to believe that nothing in life is secure. Friends and family die and lovers leave. Dreams are blown away like dust and precious times slip through our fingers like sand. Uncertainty rages like an angry ocean and the future rises like a tidal wave to wash away the happy moments that we cling to. We are only left with memories. We are only left with ourselves.
I guess in a way I can relate with my giant trees. Some have stood against all odds through a millennium or more. Standing tall and weathering a thousand ferocious storms, steadfast and determined. Countless others smaller and some many times greater ripped away from the earth only to return to dust in their presence. Some were alive as many as two hundred years before the founding of our great nation, watching the children of many generations play beneath their branches.                                  
 I too know what it is like to see those close to me die and to weather the storms of life when it seemed as though I was standing on my own. I know what it is like to stand alone, in the middle of a forest or the edge of a field wishing someone would pass by and see how strong and beautiful I was. I have also felt fragile in times of uncertainty and wished to be mighty and everlasting. This is why I admire these old and quiet giants. I stand in awe in their presence and somehow relate to their old and scared trunks. Some have lost their mightiest and most prized branches as I have lost so many important pieces of me. As I sit beneath their shade I am reminded that only the strong survive. Something within this tree and something within me has weathered these storms, and that is why we both stand here today.

In short, I realize now that the tree in my dream as a child was in fact......me. Once I endured the storms of life, I became the tree and I was found. Peace had to be realized through trail and fire.
John D Harvey (JohnnyDJersey)

East Coast and West Coast Big Tree Hunter

"If you look closely at a tree you'll notice it's knots and dead branches, just like our bodies. What we learn is that beauty and imperfection go together wonderfully." - Matt Fox

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#2)  Re: Why big trees? My personal story.

Postby Ranger Dan » Sat Apr 12, 2014 7:03 am

Johnny-

I definitely can relate to these beautiful, heartfelt words, and I appreciate your talent in creative writing. I had similar childhood experiences with ancient trees which gave me an enduring love for them.

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#3)  Re: Why big trees? My personal story.

Postby dbhguru » Sat Apr 12, 2014 8:41 am

John,

  We thank you for sharing your memories and connections to trees with us. Your intimate association with trees through dreams, work, and your passion for finding the largest and oldest strikes a resonant chord with many of us. But I was especially moved by your description of the close association of your fellow workers to the trees, their in depth knowledge and identification skills. I've never had a good understanding of how rank and file tree workers relate to trees. My association has been largely through arborists such as Will Blozan and Bart Bouricius, who are also citizen scientists. Will is at the top of the pecking order in terms of tree measuring skills and development of methods, and is a legend in his own time. That doesn't give us a  window into the larger world of tree work. So, it is comforting to me to hear that many ordinary, rough-hewn tree workers can develop deeper connections to trees than as just challenges to take down.

  As we have followed your trips and posts, it has become increasingly clear to us that you are no ordinary big tree hunter, but one with exceptional attunement and intensity. Your contributions to NTS are a realization of what we hoped NTS could/would become. It has never been only about measuring, but the connections.

  I hope your excellent essay will be encourage other Ents to share their tree connections with us. Thanks again.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder and Executive Director
Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest

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#4)  Re: Why big trees? My personal story.

Postby John Harvey » Sat Apr 12, 2014 9:55 pm

Dan and Bob, thank you for your kind words.
 It certainly was interesting to do the work I did with the fellows I worked with. If you close your eyes and think the word "lumberjack", that sums up most of them. The remaining guys were young men like myself just getting started in the field. There was even one woman who did the ground work. She was probably the toughest and hardest working out of all of us. It was very interesting to hear their point of views on subjects like conservation and even subjects like invasive species. One of the guys even looked for invasive trees under wires that were not in peoples yards so he could remove them with a good excuse. There was a certain respect everyone had for the trees however.  Sometimes it was the same kind of respect a bear hunter has for his prey or a deep sea fisherman has for a marlin. It was an admiration and even sometimes a fear of certain trees or even a species, regardless of whether they recklessly cut down trees without regard, or were careful to only do what was necessary.
John D Harvey (JohnnyDJersey)

East Coast and West Coast Big Tree Hunter

"If you look closely at a tree you'll notice it's knots and dead branches, just like our bodies. What we learn is that beauty and imperfection go together wonderfully." - Matt Fox
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#5)  Re: Why big trees? My personal story.

Postby pdbrandt » Sun Apr 13, 2014 12:09 pm

Johnny,

Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts into words and sharing them.  You got me thinking about why I'm so passionate about trees.  I don't know that I can really give a logical reason for my interest in trees, but here's my best attempt:  I've always loved nature, the outdoors, and especially tromping around in the woods.  It's not just trees that I love, but wildlife, wildflowers, wild edibles, mountain peaks, streams, lakes, lush coves, cliff side vistas and rocky caves.  Nature reminds me of God's power, love, grace, generosity, and commitment to diversity.  

Trees are special in my mind because they are enduring, adaptable and they are the epitome of silent strength and perseverance.  They bring beauty where ever they are.  They are beneficial in life and death.  In the last few years I learned to climb trees in non-impactful ways and that has further increased my appreciation of them.  They have strength to lend to a climber and the perspective experienced from the crown transforms the surroundings to a totally different place compared to that experienced from the ground.  Like Johnny mentioned, uniquely big, tall, or old trees represent wisdom, compassion, omnipotence and it is privilege to be in their presence.  I feel myself both grounded in what is really important in life and at the same time aspiring to more lofty heights when I am near one of these great trees.

Like most people, I loved trees more as a kid than as an adult - until recently.  I consider myself fortunate to have regained my deep appreciation - even reverence - for trees as an adult.  Here's a picture of me enjoyed an ancient tree in Coleman Memorial Park near my grandparents home near Lebanon, PA.

Image

And another of a hunter's tree stand that I co-opted for a more peaceful nature appreciation stand.  As a young teenager I used to ride my bike to the stand and spend hours observing deer, birds of prey, and other animals while relaxing to the sound of rustling leaves and wind blown canopies.

Image
Patrick

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#6)  Re: Why big trees? My personal story.

Postby dbhguru » Sun Apr 13, 2014 4:51 pm

Patrick,

  A most eloquent tribute to the celebration of trees - spoken as a true Ent. John may have really started something. I expect many out there have unique takes on human-tree relationships and why can add to the list of why trees are important to people on many levels. Thanks for your contribution.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder and Executive Director
Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
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#7)  Re: Why big trees? My personal story.

Postby dbhguru » Sun Apr 13, 2014 4:52 pm

Patrick,

  A most eloquent tribute to the celebration of trees - spoken as a true Ent. John may have really started something. I expect many out there have unique takes on human-tree relationships and why can add to the list of why trees are important to people on many levels. Thanks for your contribution.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder and Executive Director
Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
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#8)  Re: Why big trees? My personal story.

Postby tomhoward » Sun Apr 13, 2014 7:39 pm

John,

Your description of how big trees have influenced your life is poetic and magnificent, and I can relate to it. I have been influenced by big trees since my earliest childhood.

I visited my first old growth forest when I was 5 years old, just after my family and I moved to North Syracuse, NY from Ogdensburg, NY where I was born. These first big old trees I saw were a dense stand of ancient oaks surrounding a vernal pool. Just outside the grove was the greatest tree of my childhood, a giant rugged, battered old White Pine, that I called the Old Pine - it and the neighboring oaks seemed to be centuries old, as old as time, and I imagined stories about those trees as wise beings that brought age-old goodness to the world.

As I grew up and learned about history, I guessed that these trees, and especially the Old Pine, were about 300 years old. These ideas have turned out to be correct. The Old Pine, a tree I still think a lot about, fell in a storm in 1979; some years later I counted 270 rings on a cross-section of the Old Pine's largest limb (the stump was too rotted for rings to be counted) - the remains of the tree were still on the ground for years.

The oaks in the ancient grove are still alive today, and I still visit them often. The oak grove is called the North Syracuse Cemetery Oak Grove today, a place I often post about.

Big trees are an important part of my fiction writing, and I am working on a novel based on a site just like the North Syracuse Cemetery Oak Grove. In my novel Down to a Sunless Sea, which is out on Amazon Kindle, there is a world ruled by wise sentient trees millions of years old and thousands of feet tall.

Many years ago I made a pilgrimage to Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park, and to the Coast Redwood groves of northern California, and I long to go back to these great, inspiring trees.

Tom Howard

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#9)  Re: Why big trees? My personal story.

Postby John Harvey » Sun Apr 13, 2014 7:47 pm

Patrick and Tom,
Thanks for the comments and for sharing. Patrick you've got me digging through old photos now trying to find trees from my childhood haha. Tom I'll have to look up your novel and read it.
John D Harvey (JohnnyDJersey)

East Coast and West Coast Big Tree Hunter

"If you look closely at a tree you'll notice it's knots and dead branches, just like our bodies. What we learn is that beauty and imperfection go together wonderfully." - Matt Fox
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#10)  Re: Why big trees? My personal story.

Postby Matt Markworth » Sun Apr 13, 2014 8:26 pm

John,

Great story! Many writers express that writing seems to come in waves and you're to be applauded for riding that wave and getting this down on paper! I've also enjoyed your trip reports and always admire the tangible sense of honesty/authenticity that really comes through.

Like many others, witnessing big trees at an early age made a big impression on me. I also think there is an instinctual element of being drawn to the forest; perhaps a returning to our roots.

Here is a photo of me with some magnificent sequoias back in 1992:

               
                       
DSCN2389.jpg
                                       
               


Matt

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