You may remember having an adult reading to you, or you reading to a child, The Giving Tree (1964), written and illustrated by the late Shel Silverstein (1930-1999). This book was the subject of a sophisticated symposium in the January 1995 issue of a magazine edited by the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009), First Things, in which 12 folks such as William May, Mary Ann Glendon, and Leon R. Kass, participated.
Let me report to two nonfictional stories similar to The Giving Tree. In conveying these to you, I must say that I have a running debate with one of my daughters, a great fan of fiction, in which I argue that nonfiction beats fiction. When I ran across these two stories in 2012, the 50th year of the release of the film of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I could not argue that fiction is any less real than nonfiction, but I could still maintain with a straight face that nonfiction should not be discounted by lovers of fiction.
So, in May of 2012, the Washington Times carried an article about the death of a man named Frank Knight. He was “middle-aged and running a logging business in 1956 when he became the volunteer tree warden in Yarmouth, 10 miles north of Portland [Maine]…” A “tree warden” is charged with caring for all trees on public property. I call to your attention the fact that a man who made a living chopping trees down volunteered to help them live.
Knight became a warden when Dutch elm disease was killing trees by the hundreds. He decided that he couldn’t save all of the elms in town, but he could do his utmost to save the largest one, nicknamed by schoolchildren “Herbie.” Knight cared for Herbie by pruning it and applying pesticides and fungicides. The tree did not succumb until five decades and 14 rounds of Dutch elm disease later, on January 19, 2010. Following examination, Herbie was declared to have been 217 years old. Herbie has its own Wikipedia entry and it references sites with more information one of which is a 2010 story in the New York Times entitled “The Old Man and the Tree.”
Unbeknownst to Knight, the townspeople made a coffin out of Herbie’s remains and it was in that coffin that Knight’s remains, who passed away on May 14, 2012, were buried.
The second story is found on page 9 of the April 28, 1894, issue of the New York Times which carried this item (punctuation and capitalization as in original):
TREE HE PLANTED MADE HIS COFFIN
Story of Almeron Higby and His Fifty-Year-Old Cherry Tree
WATSON, N.Y., April 27. – Fifty years ago Almeron Higby of this village, when he was nine years old, planted in his father’s dooryard the stone of a cherry that he had eaten. A tree sprung up, and in a few years began to bear fruit. Higby sold the fruit from year to year, saving the money, even after he was married and had children.
Last Summer his health became poor, and as the tree began to show signs of decay he cut it down and had the trunk sawed into boards, with which he made a coffin for himself. His eccentric actions caused much comment at the time, but Higby only laughed when questioned about the matter, and said he could see no harm in a man making his own coffin.
He seemed to have a presentment that he was soon to die, and a short time ago he was taken serious ill. A few days later he died, and by his request was buried in the coffin made with his own hands, and the expenses of the funeral were paid from the money saved from the sale of the cherries borne by the tree from which his coffin was made.
In searching the Web for any other information on this man and story, there was a notice dated April 5, 1894, that appeared in the April 20, 1894, edition of the Skaneatels (N.Y.) Free Press, and the story also appeared in the June 23, 1894, issue of the Georgetown (S.C.) Semi-Weekly Times. The only piece of information not in the Times account was that the tree was always known as “the boy’s tree” or as “Almeron’s Tree.”
From the website familytreemaker.genealogy.com, we learn that Higby’s ancestors emigrated from England in the 17th century. Hibgy’s father, William R. (1805-1890), married Fannie M. Dean, on April 7, 1831. They had eight children: Sherrill (1832-1904), Almeron (1834-1894), Lois Imogen (1836-?), Lewis (1841-?), Marion (1848-?), Albert (1851-?), Eugenia (1853-?), and William (1855-?). Sherill and Almeron were both born in Lewis County. Almeron married Eliza A. Puffer on January 10, 1859. They had four children: Nellie (1863-?), William Almeron (1866-?), Alfred Almeron (1869-?), and Lewis C. (1879-?). Thus, when Almeron died, it was just four years after his father had died and his son Lewis, if alive, was not yet 15. Through the years, Almeron’s parents, siblings, wife, and children – and neighbors – all saw the relationship Almeron had with his cherry tree. The “eccentricity” the neighbors observed was not that Almeron cut down his tree, but that he made his own coffin and did so out of his tree.
I shouldn’t have been, but I was, startled when I read at a mining museum that every manmade thing we see around us is derived either from minerals taken out of the ground or from plant or sea life. Stories like those of Shel Silverstein or of Frank Knight or of Almeron Higby remind us of something more: a life of intimacy with other living things. The poet laureate, W.S. Merwin, referred to this at a book-signing in May of 2011 at the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, as reported by the Washington Post Magazine:
A man with a soft drawl told Merwin he appreciated his passion for preserving nature; he had been working to replant a family farm whose forests had been cut down. Merwin perked up. “What kinds of trees?” he asked. “Mostly oaks and ashes,” the man said. “I’ve had some old trees that have been good friends of mine,” Merwin said.”
I have friends who recently moved to rural Virginia and, among other things, they will start bee-keeping and a dairy. Certainly ranchers, and their children, particularly at times of birth, are intimate with livestock. But the rest of us? We go to the grocery store and our children don’t know where milk and cheese and bacon and carrots and cereal and lettuce and melons and bananas come from. There is a poverty in this.