production, made for great butter. But the world’s largest high-quality butter town never happened. By 1845, all hemlock within
a ten-mile radius were gone, and the town quickly shrank. Pratt
commissioned himself a hemlock co;n. In the Catskills, it was
well noted that a green hemlock log thrown on a fire crackled
like a gun battle. “And when I die let me be buried in a hemlock
co;n, so I’ll go through hell snapping” was an oft-heard refrain.
Shortly before he died, a flood washed Pratt’s co;n down the
Schoharie Creek. In 2011, Prattsville su=ered another disastrous
flooding, this time the result of Hurricane Irene. It might not
have been so bad had Pratt never set up shop, or moved to butter
sooner, or just further considered the implications of cutting so
many hemlock along steep ravines. A little forest management
goes a long way.
IN PREPARING for the hemlock’s eulogy, it is important to remember that a striking characteristic of human civilization is
its tendency to discount what is most essential to sustaining its
long-term existence. Swamps, for instance, are forever being
filled in—or “reclaimed,” the old real-estate term for dumping
garbage in a marsh. The word implies that it’s always for civilization’s betterment, even if civilization would be better o= if the
watery guts that clean and nourish our rivers and streams were
not filled in.
In my mind, a hemlock forest is the upland equivalent of the
undervalued salt marsh at the distant bottom of a stream, a place
that gets along despite the encroachment of humans surrounding it, a place that is often a little bit neglected by the powers
that be (due to its economic unsexiness, its out-of-the-way-ness),
even though it is often cherished by locals, the people who know
it best. Like an old swamp in a city, it is a place that, when engaged with, helps the humans get along a little better. Forests,
like salt marshes, o=er us a chance at a long-term relationship
with a landscape, especially when we tie ourselves to them as a
resource—an economic, ecological, and, sure, even emotional
resource — and especially when we allow them to be forests.
What’s important about a hemlock forest—and what makes
its demise important to regions beyond the eastern forests and the
boreal forest that covers 1. 4 billion acres across most of Canada —
is that hemlock is a foundation species, a species that orchestrates
the architecture of a large community of species in the forest. Losing hemlock is like losing a conductor and the music, though rest
assured the concert hall remains, and there are plenty of people
waiting in line to play.
The hemlock forest we will hear eulogize itself today is quiet
and dark, like a hemlock forest, and it began sprouting around
the time Dolley Madison was first lady. And these are young trees,
relatively speaking. Some of the oldest hemlock are close to five
hundred years old and still standing in the least touched places in
the East, like the Berkshires, in Massachusetts, and the Adiron-
dacks, in New York. But many of them have already fallen — just
look at the dying groves in Great Smokies National Park. I hate
to separate the country from the city, or call one thing natural
and another thing not, but to put it in terms of urban ecology
(which to me is related to rural ecology but with higher rents),
the rare, old hemlock woods that remain are like the city trees in
abandoned lots, or that old retired guy in the last rent-controlled
apartment, surrounded by gentrification, holding on, until now.
IT HAD BEEN HOT in New York City when I drove out in the
morning to pay some final respects to the hemlock. But when
I stepped into the hemlock forest, the temperature dropped; it
was immediately and blessedly cooler by ten degrees, like an
old church in summer. The hemlock I went to hear are in the
New England uplands, and I made the drive in part because the
hemlock in the city where I live and in the coastal lowlands are
already gone. The Hemlock Forest, a fifty-acre grove in the New
York City Botanical Garden— once a cool, quiet place along the
Bronx River — is no longer hemlock. Likewise, most of the hemlock on Hemlock Hill at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston have
fallen to the punctuation-sized aphidlike insect.
The hemlocks on Hemlock Hill were famously visited by the
transcendentalists, notably Margaret Fuller, the transcendentalist newspaper columnist who wrote for the New York Tribune.
Although the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 knocked
down dozens of the trees, the grove survived, but the few that
remain post-adelgid are Chinese hemlock planted near the top
of the hill. The hemlock-less peak of Hemlock Hill—now a
dry, rocky outcrop—is an o=-the-manicured-path kind of place
that attracts another kind of transcendental experience. The last
time I was there, I saw evidence of a high school outing— i.e.,
empty beer cans. High schoolers like to be just out of reach of
the authorities, the way old-growth hemlock tends to be just out
of reach of the ax.
Another transcendentalist who stumbled on some old hemlock in his own backyard was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau
climbed Mount Monadnock, just over the border from Massachusetts, in 1844, 1852, 1858, and 1860, always botanizing, always taking notes. Monadnock wasn’t wild and unspoiled like
the Maine woods where he also explored; he liked it because it
was an old place practically just out back, a pocket of wildness. It
was hemlocky, I would say.
I thank Thoreau for leading me to today’s eulogy. By my
measure, the world is still a pretty good place if you can call
somebody up and get invited to walk in some woods, and that’s
what happened when I first called up David Foster, the director