In Praise of Hemlock

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.

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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34 Responses to In Praise of Hemlock

  1. alex55manta says:

    I don’t do enough to try to address all the threats that seem to be so prevalent which have been inflicted to our environment. I know these sorts of things should motivate me, but at times it gets a bit overwhelming… to me. This will pass and I will hopefully do something which supports efforts that try to address threats to the environment. On the brighter side, I’ve taken a ride or two up through the haunts where I’ve been known to throw a fly line (but didn’t actually toss it this time). Seems to still be plenty of water and the oak trees are clinging onto their leaves like they usually do this time of year. Most others have shed theirs making it possible to actually see into the mountain sides. A very nice scene. I’ve always liked hemlocks – not that I dislike many other trees. Great post about the hemlocks and a beautiful Brookie RTR! … UB (delete this if this comes to you as a duplicate comment RTR)

  2. Hi. Are other large trees taking hold where hemlocks are in trouble?

    • alex55manta says:

      I’m sure something will take the place of the hemlock as they die off. The thing is, the emerald ash borer beetle has virtually wiped out the ash trees within the past 10 years or so – and I’m only guessing it’s been about 40 years since the American chestnut trees were afflicted and nearly wiped out. It just seems like it’s one thing after another and it’s relentless. I’ve got to get off the ‘gloom and doom’ soapbox though – but it’s difficult to when so much is affecting our environment. UB

      • That’s a good question, Neil. As UB has suggested here, our natural environment is a torn fabric getting frayed & diminished as each species is a vital thread within. Other trees may step up to the banks & provide decent shade, but I doubt its quality will be as supportive. Another question: Can successive natives compete today with aggressive non-native species such as Japanese knotweed?

  3. Jet Eliot says:

    I so very much enjoyed your tribute to hemlock, Walt. Your words were a balm, so your serenity in the grove came through, and were much appreciated. The peace and quiet, the singing thrush and winter wren, the ravine and rays of sunshine. The hemlock descriptions and their beauty, and the sadness we encounter when our much-loved species are in trouble. Much enjoyed.

  4. Bob Stanton says:

    The light of a late summer’s evening sun, filtering through the boughs and illuminating the red-brown bark of a mature hemlock is a sight that I’ve enjoyed since I was a mere slip of a youth. I can’t help but think that as disastrous and sad the havoc wreaked by the emerald ash borer has been, the woolly adelgid infestation would be even worse and much more far reaching. They’ve inoculated the giant old growth hemlocks at Heart’s Content and Cook Forest, so at least there’s that.

    • Brent says:

      Bob, I’m glad to hear that the trees at those two sites are protected. In a bit of news, C and I are moving to Pittsburgh quite soon: Heart’s Content, which I haven’t seen since I was a kid, and Cook Forest (where I’ve never been!) will be very much on my day trip radar. A bit far for you, but there’s also a beautiful small old-growth grove in Cathedral State Park in northern West Virginia. And the Rambler and I saw some nice old growth last spring in the Deer Lick Preserve, just south of Cattaraugus Creek.

      • Bob Stanton says:

        Cool, Brent! I think you’ll like the ‘Burgh. Lots to do and it has a very ethnic, Eastern European immigrant feel to it, IMO.

    • A curse on the plague of adelgids & their ilk! Thank you, Bob, for your appreciation of the hemlock groves & for sharing your pleasure therein. It’s good to hear that Heart’s
      Content & Cook Forest hemlocks have been inoculated. What a job, huh?

  5. Don T says:

    Thanks so much for this. Brings back memories of my time as a youth. You know the location of which I speak. The steep, dark mountain sides surrounding a cold trout stream.
    I will return next spring to refresh!!

    Best wishes.

  6. Brent says:

    I think it’s the grove on the south hillside (and similar patches elsewhere in the hollow) that imprinted on me from an early age and made hemlocks my absolute favorite tree. Of all the ecological and environmental tragedies of this era, the loss of hemlocks feels the most intimately personal to me, even though it’s just one of many similar losses on a global scale. For several years, I’ve walked through the forests in Shenandoah National Park, which once had some of the most renowned hemlock groves anywhere, and wondered what it would’ve been like to see familiar sites sheltered with that dark, sound-muffling green. I’m cautiously optimistic about the ability of bio-controls (like beetles) to reverse the threat, even as I realize that biological solutions can be a double-edged sword.

    • Brent, I’m glad those patches made a large imprint on you, and we can only hope that bio-controls & the fate of the eastern forests work out kindly for the hemlock. Speaking of Shenandoah trees, I was reminded recently that even as far south as the Smokies, there are, or have been, wonderful groves of canadensis on the mountainsides. To lose them would be tragic.

      • Brent says:

        The single most massive hemlock I have EVER seen was in the Smokies. I’ll email you the pic if you haven’t already seen it.

  7. Elegantly stated. Now, in a single season, it appears we’ve lost every ash on our twelve acres, and beyond.

    • Thank you, FT! I much appreciated one of your own recent blog posts in praise of the hemlock’s role in brook trout sustenance. As for the ash trees, I think I know your feeling of loss this year. The ash trees on my acreage are quickly succumbing.

  8. babireley says:

    How was the fishing on the WB?

  9. tiostib says:

    Beautifully written. Thank you.

  10. AJ Morris says:

    Invasives, sigh… It’s one of those sadly ironic things that the brook trout, which was nearly extirpated in much of it’s native range is an invasive out west. Of course the state of Idaho charitably refers to brookies as “non-native”, possibly because it was the state that routinely stocked the little buggers until the late 1970’s. Good intentions and all that.

    I really like brookies even though officially I’m not supposed to, and I do occasionally feel conflicted about that. I’m well aware of the havoc they can wreak on our native ecosystem, but they are so darn pretty, plus they are suckers for swung soft hackles on a bamboo rod.

    There are several local brook trout streams that historically didn’t have any fish at all due to quirks of geology, and I’m more than pleased to have them here and thriving. Of course in other watersheds, I kill and eat ’em without compunction, which has occasionally caused misunderstandings. I once guided a gentleman from Pennsylvania, and at one point in the day I casually mentioned that a friend and I had hiked into some nearby beaver ponds and whacked a bunch of brookies for shore lunch. I thought the poor man was going to have a stroke…

    Despite the issues, I guess at the end of the day, I’m more happy than not that they have found a refuge here. Would that we could find a similar balance with other species.

    • Great point, well-stated, AJ. I’ve long sensed that irony concerning the brook trout, certainly native in my eastern watersheds but “non-native” where it’s been planted in places like our western states. It’s hard to think of it as a serious competitor of cutthroat sub-species there, but that it is in some locations. Our old stocking habits have made a confusing mess of things in various habitats, although, admittedly, it sure is fun to catch & marvel at a wild fish, no matter its location. And for many anglers it’s difficult to begrudge the presence of a wild brown or rainbow trout in places like the East where they have become “non-native” also, and compete with brookies… Anyway, thanks for this.

  11. plaidcamper says:

    There’s peace to be found in the presence of trees, joy also, so it’s distressing we still can’t find ways to preserve and even regenerate what we’ve got before it’s gone. The scale and intensity of our floods and the connection to massive clearcutting is all too obvious, but on it goes, profits over protecting the ship we all sail in…
    This was bittersweet, Walt, but I guess we find and appreciate the fragments while we can.

  12. JZ says:

    Hemlocks make fly anglers think of trout. Just like that, they take us to places where the cool water flows. That’s why we hold that tree so dear in our hearts, or at least mine.

  13. Mike Valla says:


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