On the road …again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
A Short Botanical History Of Home
We youngsters might have taken the trees for granted when we were very young, but as we grew older those trees around the house became keepsakes. The old Pellek homestead on Church Street in Netcong, New Jersey is a grassy plot these days but when he was growing up there, each of those trees had a place in his memory.
Starting from out the back door and to the left, the 35 foot black walnut (Juglans nigra) was the anchor tree on which Mom’s clothes line was attached. The other end of the pulley was bolted to the side of the house, so when Mom had washed clothes to put on the line, she would step out of the house and attach the wet clothes with wooden clothes pins, yank the rope, and let them fly. We seemed to have so many dirty clothes in a household of nine, that the clothes line always seemed to be full right up the other pulley on the black walnut tree at the end of the property. Of course, there were walnuts that we scoured for in the late fall. There were never too many of them; and breaking open a native black walnut was so difficult that Footloose Forester can’t remember harvesting more than two dozen in all those years. The other kids never showed any interest in handling walnuts because of the stubborn greenish stain they left on your hands and clothes.
Along the back line of the property facing out towards the wooded area that is now a parking lot behind St. Michael’s Grammar School, the next tree was a large apple tree that had already died off and stood there without branches or a full top. It did contain an open wound at eye level where we could hide small toys. Only brothers Ronny and Joe were old enough to remember playing with Footloose Forester around its barkless frame. It rotted away before the other children grew up.
Coming down the property line from the big skeleton of the apple tree and near the property boundary that abuts St. Michael’s School was a Bosc Pear tree. It got more attention than any of the other trees because in addition to being the most copious producer of fruit in the fall, it had a swing. A double rope swing in the earlier years was replaced by a single rope swing with an old tire as the seat. Dad installed both of the swings for us children and kids from the neighborhood sometimes joined us in taking turns swinging. We never saw Dad put up the ropes, but he saw to it that we always had a swing to play on. And picking the fruit was easy because there were so many pears. Of course we youngsters climbed the tree when we had to.
Next, came the other pear tree, near the other corner of the house. It was a Bartlett Pear that was only about 15 feet tall and had so few branches that it did not seem to be very healthy. But it was healthy enough to produce some good fruit every year for the 20 years or so that Footloose Forester remembers it, starting in the 1940s.
Also near the house was an American white ash tree (Fraxinus americana) that was Dad’s favorite. It was close enough to the side of the kitchen window where Dad sat to eat his breakfast, that he eventually strapped an improvised bird feeding station around the tree, so that he could watch the birds feeding, especially in winter. The most successful and the most rewarding venture was when Dad tied pieces of suet to the feeder. Chickadees, sparrows and juncos would come and peck patiently at the suet strips that were at eye level. Their presence thrilled us just as much as an unexpected visit from old friends.
That white ash tree was the one that Footloose Forester climbed more often than all the others, except one. It was so close to the house that after reaching the second level of branches, you could drop onto the roof over the kitchen. Once in a while it was necessary to go up on the roof to repair a loosened roof tile, or to remove a broken branch, but mostly Footloose Forester climbed those trees to exercise his spirit of adventure and challenge. Mom knew that he was a loner and an adverterous type, so she usually asked him to go up on the roof when something needed attention.
Near the other corner of the house facing Church Street, there was another American White Ash, a tree that emerged from the ground with two slender boles from the same stump. As often as Footloose Forester appraised it as a challenge to climb, it did not hold any appeal because the upper branches were too small to hold his weight. The only thing he remembers about that white ash was how close it was to the house. Its root mass actually mounded up just a few inches from the side of the house, as if it was not planted there but grew up from seed from somewhere else and was never cut back.
Next to the sidewalk on Church Street in Netcong stands the larger of only two trees remaining from the old Pellek homestead. It is the Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) in whose branches Footloose Forester spent many pleasant hours when he was growing up. Each session may have been only fifteen minutes or so, but he climbed it so often in ensuing years, especially in the late spring and summer when the leaves were full; that he considered it his own personal clubhouse. Tree climbing is an individual sport, thus he never felt compelled to invite any of the kids in the neighborhood to climb up with him. It was also more comfortable to spend time there because there were three places where he could stand or sit. He especially liked to watch the cars as they passed slowly by; or to sit quietly as people walked directly underneath. To this day, that maple trees spreads it shade beyond the property line and onto Church Street.
The Pellek House prior to 2002
Even when he was older and learning about nature through Boy Scouts, the Footloose Forester remembers trying to graft the scion of the Bosc Pear into the understock of the maple tree. He didn’t really think that he was going to produce pears from the trunk of a maple tree, but he wanted to know if he could succeed in keeping the pear tissue alive with the cambial juices of the maple. It didn’t work.
Completing the trace of tree plantings from around the outside of the property, the final one is another Norway Maple, up the street from his favorite Norway Maple. Its present age is known with certainty from 1949 or 1950 because Footloose Forester noted it when he and his brothers and neighborhood friends built a snow fort along the sidewalk; and we kept hitting its short skinny stem with our shovels. At that time it was no taller than eight inches and no thicker than a straw. Although it got completely buried under snow for the first several years of its life, we let it grow. As the years passed, it too, provided summer shade along Church Street. Today, at age 65 or so, it serves to shade cars in the upper parking lot of St. Michael’s Church and makes Church Street a pleasant place to take a walk.
The original chronicle about the short botanical history of our homestead was published in January 2014. After a trip back home in 2017, there are a few photos to add, thanks to the internal editing capabilities found in LegacyStories.org. The first photo below is the 68-year-old Norway Maple that was a scrawny little sapling in the early 50s. It got buried under the snow each year but finally emerged to be a handsome tree with pleasant shade.
In 1952 this tree was the diameter of a straw
The only other tree remaining on the old Pellek homestead now is the older Norway Maple that shows signs that major branches were sawn off. Both trees line the sidewalk on Church Street and were probably kept to maintain the aesthetics of their shade.
Young boys no longer sit in its branches
Due in large part to computer technology, history no longer has to be viewed as something dead and inert. A snippet of live history has been incorporated into this chronicle. Who knows what the next chapter will say?