The junket to the archive started with a question that seemed simple at the time.
“Where can I learn about the trees here?” I asked Dear Host (DH), when we arrived at the house from the airport. “Back at home we’ve got a tree expert; maybe Eagle has one too. And while we’re at it, who knows the names of these birds singing away?”
While I unpacked, DH sensibly whipped out his phone, and set the local grapevine humming: Who can talk to our guest here, about birds and trees? In no time, answers were rolling in. One nature enthusiast sent an actual apology! That week she was needed at home, and could not show me around. However, everyone had two suggestions: For serious birding, I should call on Mr. S. (“But we don’t know what field trips he leads these days; he’s 103.”) Then for trees, I should try for an appointment at the archives of the county historical society. Then DH decided to compose an email describing my interest in nature and in all things Eagle. With characteristic optimism he applied the old adage that to get a job done, just aim for the top and contact the busiest guy around. He sent that message to Mr. Jones, one of the most influential public figures in town, to ask how to arrange for a viewing of the local archive.
I didn’t count on an appointment to that archive. Some overworked librarian would have to set aside her tasks, hunt down the key, open the closet, and wait patiently for me to fumble around in a carton of folders for the file with the tree news clipping in it. Instead I made plans to just go out on my own and observe what I could. So early on Wednesday, after a truly refreshing sleep, I got up early in the cold clear dawn to a whole symphony of bird calls. These birds were not the shy crepuscular types like the ones back home, who fall silent by 7:00 am; this lot were out loud and proud all day long. Their happy ruckus gave me extra motivation to go explore the landscape.
After a long ramble in the 19th century cemetery and the riverfront with its blue heron and carpet of purple dead-nettle flowers, I headed back toward the house. Then an email pinged my phone. Mr. Jones himself was thoughtfully letting us know that the archive had public viewing every Wednesday at 1:00. The time was 12:45, so I hurried over to the building. A cheerful librarian was just unlocking the door, and gave me a warm welcome. I masked up, and she waved me right in.
This was no closet with a banker box of folders. This was a spacious lower floor with an extensive collection, and historic artifacts on display. Two additional archivists were already at work on the digital collections. The very mention of key word “trees” lit up quite a bit of interest and discussion among them. Then the cavalcade of holdings began. The women began piling materials on my viewing table. There were vintage photograph albums of the town trees, tree maps of the area, heights and diameters, longitudinal census counts of native and imported species, calculated sprouting dates from the 1600s on, dendrochronological data, casualties of fire and storm, historic events and accounts centered on the role of trees, economic value of trees and their harvested products, arbor-themed tales and poems and festivals and social clubs and school projects. These collections were beautifully organized and well preserved. With permission, I took cell phone pictures of artifacts and displays.
And so my simple initial question was more like a Matroshka doll of many growth rings.
The tall trees (burr oak, sawtooth oak, walnut, sycamore, sweet gum, on and on) were not just standing around looking majestic; they played a central figure in history. Many of our frontier towns of the America heartland have disappeared. But trees are part of the reason for Eagle’s unique identity and economic endurance, its microclimate and handsome natural setting.
Kindred souls in the Federation of Women’s Societies had done the footwork and writing, the documentation and preservation, for many years. They had preserved portions of felled trunks here in the archive for further study, and even designed handsome engraved metal plaques to place beside the trees around town. Here is a fragment of one of them:
Along with the written history, there were lively reminiscences of the ladies themselves, recounting their memories of notable trees in the community life of the town. I shared with them what a pleasant surprise it was, to walk down their streets and have passing residents greet me as a stranger and volunteer to point out this or that notable tree.
Soon another caller stopped by: Mr. Jones! He was dropping in with a cordial handshake to check on the out of town guest. We all had a lively visit. At one point, our archivist asked what I do for a job. I explained that I was, well, an archivist. “Girl!’ she exclaimed, with her bright eyes and appealing smile. “How soon can you move here?” Without thinking twice I leaped over and hugged her. That was a happy hour, to feel so welcome anywhere, or so at home with a group of people. Finally to let everyone carry on with their work, I packed up and thanked them for the visit.
As I headed out, they gave me some parting advice: I should go visit with Mrs. Dorcas. (That isn’t her real name. That’s a seamstress from the Bible.) Word was, that Mrs. Dorcas is accomplished at sewing her own pioneer outfits and bonnets; she also designs menus and cooks up historically informed cuisine based on the area cultural traditions of the 1800s, and works in antique house restoration. The ladies didn’t have to work hard to persuade me; meeting a town historian like that sounded like my next worthwhile adventure.
It was heartening to learn that an eye for trees made me not an eccentric outsider, but an observer in very good company with other members of the community down through the years.