Old Silver Maple   Edward Frank
  Apr 03, 2007 17:29 PDT 
There is an old silver maple snag I pass on my way to work every morning. I wonder of its history. The tree is perhaps 4 or 5 feet in diameter and stands not more than 40 feet high. It has large broken-end limbs reaching upward giving it a skeletal appearance, but most importantly, the tree is still alive. Today there was a hint of red buds among the mass of finer limbs heralding the approach of spring. It is located below a main highway, adjacent to a set of railroad tracks, on the edge an industrial park. The tree had not always been in such a sad state, nor had it been growing under such an inhospitable circumstances. I am guessing the tree is at least 150 years old, perhaps a little more. It is growing on what had originally been the edge of the flood plain of Sandy Lick Creek in Dubois, PA.

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Early in its youth growing in a floodplain was an excellent start for the tree. The Sandy Lick Creek is normally a small steam. In the summer it may be as little as twenty feet across and a foot deep. At other times the stream floods and overtops its banks. Major floods have covered many of the little towns along its path. In places the creeks flood plain is perhaps a half-mile wide. In slow times it carries silt and clay sized particles along.   During floods larger rocks are moved. The stream scours its bottom deepening it, only to be filled back in again as the water recedes. When the floodwater moving rapidly in the stream channel overtops the banks it spreads out and slows. It drops the larger particles it is carrying at the edge of the channel. Over time these eventually form a raised levee along the edges of the river. From the top of the levee the flood plain slopes backward toward the banks of the floodplain itself. Water flowing from the channel during floods, and small streams from the surrounding hillsides finds itself trapped by the levee and forms backwater swamps along the edge of the floodplain. These are areas ideal for the growth of many trees such as out silver maple. If there is a large enough volume of water these swamps will form stream that flow parallel to the main river until it finds a breach in the levee that allows it to join the main flow of the creek again. These are called Yazoo streams and are known as such the world over. They were named that after the Yazoo River in Yazoo City, Mississippi. The Yazoo River is a large example of this type of stream flowing parallel to the Mississippi River. Over time the creek meanders back and forth across its flood plain, eroding banks here and depositing bars there. Over time the meanders move upstream in a slow march. How much of this was witnessed by the old Silver Maple?

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Land use changes were witnessed by the old Silver Maple. The bottom of the floodplain was once covered by floodplain forests. These were cut as the city of Dubois grew. By the early 1900's almost all of William Penn's great woods was gone. The entire state was denuded aside from a tiny patch here and there by chance spared from the loggers saws. Sometime in the late 1800's a railroad was built along the edge of the floodplain. Railroads tended to follow the edges of floodplains as these had the low slope needed for the pathway. Here and there along the route the railroad bed was built up filling in parts of the backwater swamp, or cut into the debris at the bas of the surrounding hills. The tree likely outdates the railroad. It is near the tracks but is not growing on the rubble of the railroad bed. These trains were used to move coal across the country. At one time the world's largest coal tipple was in Reynoldsville, PA a few miles from the line from here. Still the old Silver Maple has be exposed to over a hundred years of the roar of train engines, the clackity clack of untold miles of trains, and the belch of coal smoke and diesel fumes from tens of thousands of trains.

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The highway runs parallel to the train tracks past the tree. I am sure that occasional horse drawn carriages were the norm in the early years of the tree. Now thousands of cars pass by every day. A convenience store was built a few years ago, along with the associated stop light directly across the tracks and road from the tree. The biggest changes witnessed by the tree was in the floodplain itself. In the middle of the last century Sandy Lick Creek was channelized as a flood control measure and large portions of the floodplain swamps were drained to allow development. Channelizing a stream is not a particularly effective flood control method. The associated changes in land use in the area, and loss the natural water retention in the lost floodplain swamp assured that floods would continue. The channel just made sure that areas downstream would have worse floods on a more frequent basis than ever before. Yet people persist even today with perplexing foolishness to build in floodplains. They are called floodplains because this is where the river floods. In the early 70's more of the floodplain was drained. Ditches cut perpendicular to the stream reach to the edges of the floodplain to drain the water for an industrial park. One such ditch lies a hundred feet or so upstream of the old Silver Maple. I am told that some other wetlands were "constructed" to replace a portion of the drained lands. The water regime in the vicinity of the old tree has been forever changed.

At some point a series of silver maple trees were planted at the edge of the floodplain. These run along the embankment parallel to and below the railroad tracks just below the old Silver Maple. They are spaced about twenty feet apart and have grown to a foot or so in diameter since planted. There are gaps were some of the trees have died and those remaining are broken and bedraggled. Perhaps it was a beautification attempt undertaken to hide the railroad tracks from the newly drained land.

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The old Silver Maple tree is not the standard definition of beauty. It is surrounded by shorter brush. The tree has large broken limbs reaching above a fat trunk. What the tree has is character. It shows its age and it shows the struggle it has had for survival. It is a witness to of the history of change in the area. It is a survivor from the past. In these way the tree is indeed beautiful.

Edward Frank

RE: Old Silver Maple   James Smith
  Apr 04, 2007 09:50 PDT 

Kind of sad recounting the supposed history of that old tree. Outside of
an asteroid impact, has anything other than Mankind had such a
devastating and far ranging impact on this planet?
RE: Old Silver Maple   Matthew Hannum
  Apr 06, 2007 16:09 PDT 

Hmmm... Interesting coincidence since there's a different, looming, old
broken-down silver maple I pass by each day to work, too.

This old tree grows along Quarterfield Road here in Maryland, right next
to the road, near a run-down mobile-home or junk business. In short, I
am not sure who "owns" it anymore, and it seems nobody really cares
about, sadly. It sits across from a school, and kids pass by it each
day, but I wonder if any of them appreciate it.

I measured the old beast in 2000, and it measred 14 feet, 5 inches
around the massive trunk, below the huge, sprawling limbs. By then, the
crown was long dead and rotted, and the tree was hollow within, but the
big, lower limbs were still alive and vigorous. In the years since then,
one big limb either fell off or was removed, but the remaining branch
still sets seed each spring and grows well during the summer. The tree
may be a ruin, but it is still growing along.

There's no good way to tell how old the tree is - how fast do silver
maples grow? And how long has it been a broken down wreck? I moved down
here in 2000, and I honestly don't know of anyone who might recall the
history of this tree, except maybe the crossing guard of the school it
sits across from - maybe she knows? But it is probably quite old, and
has seen a lot in its years. Now, it still fights on each year (I hope
the late frost this year doesn't do it in) and acts as a home for
assorted wildlife and a place for wild, fruit-bearing vines to climb.

This old silver maple is not the only one in the area. Within a mile
there are 2 others I know about, maybe more. One is an old wreck along a
side street, and the 3rd is a towering, multi-trunk monster that looms
over a local, family-run garden center. That tree is huge - at the base,
it is easily over 7 or 8 feet across along the long-axis of the oval,
but it multiple large trunks fused together, so it is not "that big"
per say. At some point in its past, most of its limbs were pruned back or
otherwise remove - sickening that such a giant would be mutilated in
such a fashion, but maybe the city is to blame since it is near a road.
The tree is now a strange collection of huge trunks and larger limbs
each covered with leafy-shoots. Despite its size and mass, however, it
is losing the war. It leaves out late and no longer sets seed from what
I can tell.

Other large trees lurk in the area around here - a couple of oaks, etc.
Who knows what they have all seen... sadly, so few people seem to care!

Re: Old Silver Maple   Edward Frank
  Apr 06, 2007 18:53 PDT 


Interesting story. I know Dale Luthringer is familiar with the old silver
maple I talked about. We had talked briefly about it in some other emails
late last year.   The tree doesn't really stand-out amidst the brush
surrounding it unless you are looking for trees. Maybe some more people
notice it since the convenience store was built across the road from it.
They can peruse the surroundings while pumping gas.   I am not sure how to
estimate the ages of Silver Maples. I am making a guess based upon the look
of the bark and the size of the tree based upon other tree types I have
seen. I am not sure if there are good age data for silver maple, none in
the Eastern Old List, and I don't know if Dale of others on this list have
cored them. I could be way off with my age guess.

The land use history I recounted for the area around the silver maple is
true. I have not did detailed historical research to pinpoint the dates,
but the ones I suggested are in the ballpark of actual events.

I wonder about silver maple. In its natural habitat it is commonly subject
to breakage from flooding and similar events. You see it as a multitrunked
tree commonly. These are signs of survival after the main trunk was broken
off or damaged and the tree regrew. Many of the trees of which I am
familiar are old broken looking trees. I wonder if it is the nature of the
species to hang-on to life more so than some other tree species so that more
of them survive to be old-looking half-dead snags? Is this part of the
natural progression for the species, as opposed to many others that look
perfectly healthy until the day the fall over? Comments anyone?

Ed Frank

RE: Old Silver Maple   Matthew Hannum
  Apr 09, 2007 17:45 PDT 

You bring up a good point about silver maples in that they seem to be
able to withstand extreme damage and other misfortune more so than most
larger native American trees. Near total loss of the trunk, loss of
large limbs, etc. Some of them don't even die immediately when they fall
over if part of the roots are still in the ground and the tree can send
out suckers from them. About the only other large tree I've seen which
can withstand a similar beating and keep on going is the native
sycamore. Both of those species almost always keep going until they are
a withered, gnarled snag that finally - with great reluctance - gives up
the ghost.

It's too bad silver maples are so plagued with serious problems like
limb failure and such that prevent them from living a long time in most
cases. In the development where my parents live, silver maples were the
tree of choice for the primary landscaping tree (houses built back in
the 1960's). Sadly, I'd say over half of them are gone now. Many fell
apart in storms or suffered one serious injury and started to die back
or rot out. Even worse was the loss of a couple of perfectly healthy
large ones for no apparent reason. My parents have one of the largest by
far, with a huge nearly perfectly symmetrical crown. Still, I have no
idea how long that tree will live and stay in one piece - with silver
maples, it is always a gamble.

RE: Old Silver Maple   wad-@comcast.net
  Apr 09, 2007 18:01 PDT 

I will be visiting two big silver maples on my way to Cook. One is a single trunk and 22' cbh. The other is similar, but I haven't seen a picture of it. They do tend to take a beating and keep chugging away.