The Life of Herbie
Michael T. Smith
1769, in Yarmouth, Maine – a seed from an elm tree, carried by a gentle breeze, floated through the air and settled to the ground. Dry leaves quickly covered it. A warm rain fell. The wet leaves stuck to the ground. Like a womb, they protected and nourished. Under their cover, the tiny seed came to life. Small, vein-like roots reached into the earth and sought nourishment. A delicate sprout pushed the protective leaves aside. Little leaves unfolded and experienced sunshine for the first time. If a tree could smile, this fragile sprout would have.
Years passed. The elm grew at a startling rate of three to six feet a year. As it grew, so did its sense of awareness. The spreading branches acted like a satellite dish. They picked up the signals from near-by trees. The number of elms grew. Each one communicated with the others. They told of all they saw and experienced. There were times when the growing elm was overwhelmed with information from the hundreds of elms that were planted along the shaded streets of the expanding little town.
In 1780, the elm’s branches stretched thirty feet into the air. From this lofty height, it sensed the presence of British ships, as they sailed into the harbour. Men dressed in uniform and carrying weapons came to shore. Under the elm’s shade, three Americans discussed battle plans. The American Revolutionary War had come to Yarmouth.
Smoke drifted on the breeze. The elm tasted the bitterness of gunpowder for the first time. That evening, as the sun sank below the horizon, a young American, badly wounded, leaned against the elm’s trunk. The elm sensed his prayers, as the young man died. His blood soaked the soil. The elm tasted death.
From 1790 to 1890, the normal chatter the tree picked up from the others diminished. The elm watched more than three hundred ships, built from the bodies of his brethren, sail out of the harbour and beyond the horizon.
The tree was almost one hundred years old, when a group of men rested in its shade. They carried muskets as they travelled south into the battle. The American Civil War was underway, and the elm sensed death again.
The small town grew as did the elm. From 1914 to 1918, the elm saw ships, now made of steel, patrol beyond the harbour. It sensed death beyond the waters, as men sailed away to fight the First World War.
On December 7, 1941, a group of young men gathered under the shade of the now mighty elm. The tree sensed excitement and fear. “Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.” One said. “I can’t believe it.” Another stated. “It looks like we’re going to war, men.” The trees leaves hung limp in the still air. It felt death was near again.
In the 1950’s, the elm towered close to one hundred feet tall. With so much area, its sense-perception was at a peak. It sensed the communication of from trees miles away, and what it sensed caused fear. More death was on the horizon. It wasn’t man this time. It was the elms, as Dutch elm disease spread across the United States, wiping out millions of trees, leaving many small towns changed. Where once streets were lined with elms, there were now stumps.
One morning, the tree felt the first signs of disease. It branches, which once sensed all things, now seemed numb. It tried to communicate with the others, but only garbled replies came in return. The elm knew it was sick.
Tree warden, Frank Knight, had the sad task of taking many of these trees down, but when he looked up at this one towering giant, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He knew it had stood sentinel over Yarmouth since before the Revolution. This one he would try to save.
For fifty years, Mr. Knight carefully nursed the old elm. He sprayed for pests and pruned diseased branches. One time, as they trimmed, a young girl asked, “What are you doing to Herbie?”
“Herbie? Who’s Herbie?” One of the workers asked.
“The tree. He’s Herbie.”
The name stuck. Herbie, although sick, always sensed Frank’s presence. Instead of the death Herbie often felt throughout his lifetime, in Frank there was peace. It was a friendship between
man and tree.
Frank Knight is now 101 years old and has lost the battle. Herbie, estimated to be close to 240 years old has to be brought down. For fifty years, Herbie’s sense-perception dimmed steadily. Now there is blackness. His time has come.
He was scheduled to be brought down on January 18, 2010, but a snow storm gave him a one day pardon. On the 19th of January, 2010, Maine will lose a majestic, 110 foot king.
Herbie’s remains are to be turned into usable items and auctioned off. The proceeds will be used to plant disease resistant elms, which will once again grace the streets of Yarmouth, Maine.
Michael T. Smith
Michael lives with his lovely wife, Ginny, in Caldwell, Idaho. He works as a project manager in Telecommunications and in his spare time writes inspiration stories. He has recently been published in two Chicken Soup for the Soul Books (All in the Family and Things I Learned from My Cat), in “Thin Threads – Life Changing Moments” and in Catholic Digest.
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