If a Tree Falls in the Forest


…it’s likely to be a hemlock, and it just might have been leaning-while-dying, over our “gravel” road that winds through almost 4 miles of woods, hardtop to hardtop.

When we moved here in 1999, our hemlocks were massive, plentiful and dark dark green. I especially loved the ones up on the ridge you see from our front porch, shadowy plumes along the ridge, dark as spruce-fir. Then the hemlock wooly adelgids’ work, already well underway in ’99, began to become sadly apparent.

Here’s a remembered passage about hemlocks from Slow Road Home:

Our hillsides were once covered with the black-green fronds of hemlock–my favorite tree. Now they stand gaunt and gray, sad skeletons with boney arms uplifted, frozen in a final unanswered prayer.

So at this one bend in the road just above the valley floor and two creek crossings on ancient, crumbling concrete low-water bridges stood the largest hemlocks left in place. Several grew–then succumbed to the insects and rotted–from the same base. (There is much more carnage than you can see from this one image.)

For fourteen years now, they leaned ominously over the road. Someday, they were going to inconvenience would-be travelers (probably Ann on her way to or from work.)  “Some guy in a truck with a chain saw” would not be our saviour as had happened with some other tree falls past. Sometimes I was the guy with the chain saw, carrying my Stihl in the back of the Subaru anticipating roadblocks.

These were so massive and so many that it would take the VDOT guys several hours with their heaviest machines to clear the debris.

Well that someday we dreaded was last Wednesday, and darn, we didn’t learn about it until driving out on Thursday. I would have liked to have stood next to those fallen sentinels that have brooded over and threatened our way home all these years.

I hate it that, when hemlocks–or any other tree for that matter–fall across the road, VDOT’s big Volvo road grader immediately pushes them too far out of the way–which usually means down towards the creek which lies well below road grade. Enough folks use wood for heat that it would be nice if they could lay usable wood just off the road for a few months to offer the wood scavengers like me something to heat with.

I did manage to salvage a bunch of hemlock branches for firewood last spring, just at the bend of the road at center-image, where last January’s ice storm created considerable windfall, a big hemlock laying down a half dozen Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus).

[Trivia note: Fragments regulars will remember our dog Tsuga, a yellow lab whose name was the scientific name for the genus of Eastern Hemlock. That’s how much the tree meant to me. And you can bet ours was the only boy named Sue(ga) in Floyd County. Dang I miss him. tsuga site:https://fragmentsfromfloyd.com]

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I only recently learned about the plight of the hemlocks when my family visited the Great Smoky Mountains last April. They are indeed beautiful, mighty trees. My daughter bought a lovely T-shirt with “Save the Hemlocks” printed on it. I love the name you chose for your dog — very inspired!

  2. I just read your old posts about Tsuga. So sorry that you lost him. We lost our poodle the same way this past summer. He was only 6. We still miss him, as I’m sure you do Tsuga.

  3. I may never get back to the Smokies now that my mom is gone, so I get to have my memories of hemlocks undisturbed by the sad state they are in now.