"Camperdown Elm"

The enduring charm of an odd outlier

My granddad likes to tell a story about the time I introduced him to my friend Jane. I was young—probably four or five—and my grandparents had come to Michigan from Toronto. We were wandering the rambling neighborhood, squat and spacious. One lot brimmed with wildflowers that my mother taught me to press between the leaves of heavy books. At the end of one of the blocks was a tree. That was Jane. 

My granddad handled this well, I think. He probably assumed Jane would be a person—a perfectly reasonable guess, unless you have a granddaughter prone to naming and loving other sorts of living things. I told him that Jane was a “she”; I said Jane was sometimes heavy with apples. Decades later, I have no idea why I thought this. I don’t recall ever having eaten an apple from the neighborhood, and surely I had no concept of how to tell the sex of a tree. (It is possible, though, sometimes: Some trees, including white ash and gingko, are dioecious, meaning their flowers are either ‘male’ or ‘female,’ bearing either pollen or fruit. If your eyes water and itch when pollen drifts toward you, you can blame that on a male tree.) All I remember is that I felt a pull toward this particular tree. Something about it spoke to me, and I wanted to share that with someone else.

All of which is to say: I understand how trees take root in someone. 

This past week, I’ve been antsy—plenty functional, but creaky, foggy, distracted, already moping about the heat—and the best antidote seems to be making laps of Prospect Park. I slice diagonal paths across the rolling meadows, increasingly crowded with groups of picnickers; I skirt the baseball diamonds; I weave in and out of the patches of woods. 

The park is full of wizened trees, tall and generous with their shade. I’m especially fond of a cluster that stands on a small hill next to “dog beach,” the designated splash zone for four-legged park-goers and their human companions. These trees have low, sagging branches that nearly brush the ground, and roots that stick up above the soil like raised veins. Though the branches droop, they’re not particularly heavy; they’re easily tousled in the breeze. When the sun starts to set, they fling long, inky shadows, and bend and dapple the light. I haven’t named these trees; I don’t consider them friends, exactly, but I am glad to know them. Clearly, I’m not the only person who has been happy to make their acquaintance. I’ve watched metal detectorists scour their footprints for old coins, buttons, and lipsticks—odds and ends that have tumbled out of loungers’ pockets over centuries, as they loafed in the shade. Over the years, I have loved many trees. But I have never loved a tree quite the way that Marianne Moore loved Prospect Park’s Camperdown Elm. 

The Camperdown Elm stands behind a short metal fence, which itself stands behind the Boathouse, a handsome building overlooking a pond patrolled by handsome swans. The Camperdown Elm probably doesn’t look like any other elm you’ve seen. The elm has strange, gnarled branches, the shape of which the British forester Alan Mitchell once described as “furiously twisting.” The tree is stout and reaches for the ground. In the 1990s, one newspaper article claimed its canopy was twice as wide as its trunk was tall.

It owes both shape and moniker to its heritage. The first tree to earn the name “Camperdown Elm” grew on the grounds of Camperdown House in Dundee, Scotland. The home’s gardeners made grafts of it with the help of wych elms, Ulmus glabra, and these appeared in a smattering of gardens around the world when highly stylized plantings were in vogue. 

Prospect Park’s arrived in 1872, and it has been appealingly odd ever since. One of my colleagues at Atlas Obscura has described the sensation of standing near it as being akin to huddling under “a giant bonsai.” Writing about so-called “pendulous plants,” including the Camperdown Elm, for the New York Times, Linda Yang once remarked that “mature specimens rarely fail to ignite a powerful emotional response.” 

Still, in the century following its arrival, the tree struggled. It was overrun with rot, infested by ants and rats, patched up with concrete. In fact, the park was looking a little shabby overall—structures were dilapidated; erosion was bad throughout. In the middle of the 20th century, locals banded together to form an organization dedicated to cleaning up the park and advocating for the plants within it. They worried that the staff was prioritizing events and buildings over the lush environment that the landscape architects, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, had in mind. (There was no need to hold concerts in the park, one resident grumbled to the Times; “you could have them in a parking lot.”) As the land was shored up and the structures were repaired, some worried that the park had forsaken the trees that ought to lord over it—and that included the Camperdown Elm. 

In 1967, concerned about the tree’s mortality, Moore—an octogenarian Pulitzer Prize winner—immortalized it in verse. This week’s poem is an excerpt of her ode to the Camperdown Elm, which she called the park’s “crowning curio.” 

The tree was boosted by Moore’s work, and the efforts of the other organizers: It was physically propped up with supports, and continues to be nurtured today. 

Reading Moore’s poem right now has me thinking about what we choose to cling to and what we allow to fall away. This dynamic, of course, plays out on the macro scale as well as the micro one. Several years ago, on the heels of Hurricane Irma and the King Tides, I went down to south Florida to trail archaeologists who were keeping tabs on sites that will, in the not-so-distant future, be swamped with water. The levels are already inching noticeably higher. The roads regularly swim, and more fearsome storms will exacerbate erosion or inundation. The archaeologists are pragmatic: They know they can’t possibly save everything. They’re trying to record as much as they can, while it’s still possible to do so. 

On a smaller scale, in this lonely, scary moment, I see many of my friends—and myself—taking stock of what we’ve planted in our lives, deciding what to water and nourish, and which weeds to pluck and chuck in the metaphorical compost. Growth doesn’t always happen in all directions at once. Sometimes it’s thrillingly vertical; sometimes it’s slower and branching. Sometimes it’s strange and loopy, and doesn’t look anything like you thought it would. The Camperdown Elm knows that better than anyone. 

Thanks for listening. If any trees have been especially bewitching to you this week, I’d love to meet them. 

Yours,

Jess


P.S. Thanks to those of you who sent short snippets of the nighttime sounds wherever you are. I’m still collecting them, so if you have a second to send me a clip (of protests, of sirens, of wind or rain or owls or whatever other noise is swirling), I would be glad to hear it. Meanwhile, my friend Adam Sneed wrote in to tell me about an avian frenemy in D.C.: 

“There's a mockingbird that lives in a bush across the street, and this little buddy defends its territory like you wouldn't believe. It perches on signs and ledges above people and flaps its wings. We caught it one evening going window by window down our side of the building, peering into each one. It's likely to chase birds of all sizes, no matter where they are on this fairly large block, particularly the crows.

Two weeks ago we were having dinner and it was sitting in the tree just outside our window, whistling its pretty but weirdly aggressive song at a volume you wouldn't believe comes from such a tiny bird. We started whistling back, repeating it or trying new patterns, and it was clearly playing along with us. This went on for 20 minutes or so before we realized it was otherwise silent outside, and that everyone on our street probably heard us.

A night or two later was one of the first nights we could keep the windows open, and around 3 a.m. the bird started singing again. It was the kind of thing that would have been pretty if it weren't keeping me up, and if I hadn't built this bird into something of a villain already. Then the next night it was the crows' turn, but after picking their side in the battle, I wasn't as irritated.” 

Take care of each other. Maybe make some chilled, homemade peanut-butter cups—and maybe eat them while reading about sex weasels in Renaissance paintings, or the deeply uncanny Auto-Icon of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. At the very least, don’t mess with mockingbirds.

Talk to you next week. Good luck out there.

[Images: Camperdown Elm by Eden, Janine and Jim/CC by 2.0; trees by “dog beach” by Jessica Leigh Hester; Camperdown Elm by Garry R. Osgood /CC BY-SA 3.0]