High Ground 14

Roger Swain reads stories and statements in tree stumps left standing

SO MANY POLITICIANS, so few real platforms. It used to be that a fellow had only to mount the nearest stump to make himself heard. Today there isn’t any wood at all in the delivery, not even the pulp that goes into newsprint. The public now gets their information from the Internet. And if you Google “tree stump,” you’ll see where all the stumps have gone. Ground, ground away. No sooner is a stump created than the next order of business becomes getting rid of it.

Arguably, no one wants to be reminded of the times they were stumped, stuck like someone whose plow is hung up on one; or up a stump, forced to perch in an uncomfortable position; or a stump jumper, a yokel, a country bumpkin. But I’m reaching here. The real reason for our antipathy is a conviction that it is suburban slovenliness to allow a tree stump to remain in the yard, akin to having a derelict car up on blocks. Tree stumps, in modern parlance, lower property values.

Gardeners know better, or they should anyway. Trees grow up, and they also grow down. Having an old one, or even its remains, in the landscape isn’t a blight. It’s history.

When the city took a chain saw to the enormous white ash at the end of my block, I was the first to brush away the sawdust and count the rings on the stump. That tree was alive when the British set fire to the White House. I’m sorry that the stump is not still there today for me to make the point.

Stumps are short-lived phenomena, so quick do we wish them away, so eager are we for the promised carpet of smooth new lawn. But stumps are not so easily erased. Even dead and ground down out of sight, their ghosts have a way of reappearing as mushrooms in the grass.

The stumps of some living trees are more resilient still. Species with dormant buds in their bases are sometimes cut precisely to encourage resprouting. These are the trees of English copses, where the hornbeam and beech are cut every 10 or 12 years for firewood, poles, and a carpet of bluebells. I’ve stood in the center of a mysterious ring of redwood trees in California, a circle of huge trunks that began life as sprouts around the base of a now-vanished colossus.

But in most suburban landscapes, it’s a dead (or judged soon-to-be-dead) tree that’s cut. And where the tree’s natural collapse might be hazardous, the felling is all well and good. But can we save a few stumps? Our streets are not, as promised, paved with gold. There may never be a chicken (skinless) in every pot. But a stump in every yard—that’s within reason.

If a measure of Haiti’s poverty is that stumps are dug up for fuel, then a stump left standing is surely an asset, something of value, a thing to be proud of. How best to show it off, you ask? A stump cut high is an invitation to clematis, wisteria, and climbing rose. It will be a feeding station for woodpeckers, a home for tree swallows. The same stump cut low is a ready platform for a tub of petunias or a basin of water, the plinth for some garden art.

And that art can even be made from the stump itself. Nymphs, wizards, and winged things have all been given life by the sculptor’s touch. Why not a carving of old Abe, a politician who surely knew the value of a stump?

No stump is immortal. Plain or fancy, it will eventually be dismantled by gentle mycelia, its atoms rearranged and reconfigured. But so long as a stump stands, it is a look back. In a season of political oratory that is so thick with doubtful promise, a stump is not just a stage; it’s a mark of what has already been delivered. H

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