Indeed, the most precious things of life are often close at hand, obtained with little cost, and we give our thanks for what sustains us. A short walk from my home is a grove of hemlock trees. I often enter the grove in a summer evening and obtain a feeling that is priceless. The mature green conifers subdue the final rays of sunlight and reveal a growing sense of fine remoteness, a serenity verging on the spiritual.
Here amidst the hemlock trees the eyes grow large; the senses sharpen in the solitude. And yet I’m not alone. The winter wren rings out its intricate song as if from a soundboard of the deep ravine and massive trunks. The hermit thrushes flute melodically. John Burroughs thought them to evoke “the finest sound in nature,” and I almost see him there, sitting on a mossy log at dusk, chewing on a citric-flavored sorrel leaf.
The eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, is yet another forest tree in serious trouble. Hemlocks managed to survive unmerciful cutting through the nineteenth-century when the bark was valued for its tannin content and a promise for the leather industry. Today this so-called “redwood of the East,” so vital for the sustenance of brook trout and other cold-water species of the uplands that require deep shade and cool temperatures, has become a victim of the woolly adelgid, a non-native insect that consumes the tree by sucking the sap from buds and branches. Sadly, the tree is dying fast.
I think of hemlock and I think of Burroughs’ derived “peace and solemn joy.” I think of the support teams struggling to save endangered species. We can reach out to them and create, perhaps, our own steps toward the goal of preservation. I once wrote the following poem: Hemlock’s inner bark was ground for doctoring scurvy, diarrhea, sores, and swelling. Needles, boiled for tea, induced the bleeding of colds and poison. Hemlock: to interpret dreams, to balance thought and action. Long before the sickness, the incurable business of procuring and possessing, rooted like a fungus on the world, the woodlanders sought an evergreen spirit for contentment and survival.