Tonight I’m going to talk about Popple, because the map and radar-view below show that nothing is happening, weather-wise. I figure nothing happening is a good thing. It frees up time, and one can “make hay while the sun shines.” It wasn’t stormy, so I cut some wood with my chainsaw, including some Popple.
Of course, if you are a true weather geek, you have no hayfield, and can’t make hay while the sun shines. Your life is devoid of meaning, and therefore you have to seek the maps below for storms, even before they exist. Why? I suppose it is because storms cancel school and work, which are situations that may give one the sense one doesn’t mean much, and instead places one in a situation where every helper counts and every man has meaning. (Or, even if you can’t be helpful with the shoveling, at least the humiliations of the classrooms and workplaces cease.)
In other words, storms give life meaning.
Looking at the map below you can see a very weak northern branch low over the Great Lakes with a very weak southern branch low to its south. A week ago computer models saw those two inconsequential features “phasing” into a big storm off the east coast. It gave weather geeks hope. Maybe school and work would be cancelled.
That storm-cancelling, work-cancelling storm isn’t going to happen. Weather geeks are hurting, smarting from disappointment, and they express their rage by sneering at those models that disappointed them. In fact it feels good to sneer at someone else, after getting sneered at by bullies at schools and workplaces.
(And don’t think I am fooled for an instant by the efforts of the politically-correct to “end bullying” in schools. All it does is replace one sort of bullying with another. As long as a form of behavior is deemed “incorrect,” noses will wrinkle as if sniffing a stench when faced with that incorrect behavior, and that nose-wrinkling is a sneer, and the sneered-at will feel bullied.)
In any case, the sneered-at weather geeks, if not sneering at the failure of the current storm to develop, are looking ahead with hope to the next storm, a possible “Santabomb” on Christmas day. They refuse to become stagnant. They keep their minds ever-active.
I know all about this, because I was a wimp for a time in school, and, because no one would listen to me talk, I learned about the withdrawn world of writing. However after a while that got old, because no one would read my writing, either. I had to get the hell out, or become one of those fellows who slowly goes mad, living in their mother’s basement.
As a teenager I wrote a poem that began,
No policeman came and told me
I had harmed society
But every poem became an oldie,
Echoing a tragedy.
Hiding down in my bomb shelter
Words once bloomed like spring for me
But now words fall flat, helter skelter:
I have lost the harmony.
I have never fed the poor
Or helped the helpless live a day
So then what do I do it for?
Unless it’s an escapist’s play:
Working midnights without pay…
It was obviously becoming obvious, even back then, that I had to get out into the sunshine and make some hay, but that is more easily said than done, especially if you are determined to be a writer, (which gives you an excuse to withdraw). However, thank God, I did get out into the sunshine. (And discovered it didn’t stop my writing.)
Because I was forced (against my will) out into the sunshine, I was forced to spend time with old Yankee men who seemingly spent all their time making hay, and had no use for poetry. I found them incredibly dull, because they had no use for Shakespeare or Keats or Shelley or even Robert Frost, and had no interest in sonnets or alliteration or iambic pentameter or assonance. All they wanted to talk about was wood, wood, wood, wood, all the live-long day, it seemed. If they ever ventured away from the subject of wood it was to talk about saws, but that led to axes, and then back to the best wood for an ax handle. The only reason I paid attention to them at all was to create a sort of sneering parody of the way they talked. Fortunately I worked hard on my parody, and accidentally learned a thing or two about wood in the process.
Today, as I took advantage of the briefly open winter to chainsaw some wood, I got to thinking about those old guys, now long dead and gone and largely forgotten. I was feeling a bit sad I didn’t listen, as I cut some popple. I wished they were still around, as I had all sorts of questions.
“Popple” is a wonderful, but pretty much extinct, verb. (Notice how I, as a writer, veer away from the actual subject of the wood?) It comes from an old, forgotten word “popul” which may come from the Roman “populus”, and which, when combined with a somewhat mysterious Dutch root that created “poplen,” created a hybrid-word that specifically described choppy water when the chop was small, more of a pointed lapping than waves.
Of course we never spend enough time in small, open boats to need such a word in our modern world. However it is a rather neat word, nonetheless.
How did it shift from describing water to trees? Actually it is rather obvious, if you have ever been outside and watched cottonwood, aspen or poplar in the sunshine. Quaking aspen are called “quaking” for a reason. The leaves are designed to flutter in even a slight breeze, (perhaps to shake dust from their surfaces), and, because the upper surface of the leaves are shiny, the fluttering makes them flash and twinkle in a manner reminiscent of water. What’s more, they make a noise like water sometimes does, which is a little reminiscent of many clapping hands, and applause.
In any case, the tree was called “popple” in New England, by the old-timers. I knew enough to deem it a trash tree. Of course the old-timers didn’t call any wood “trash”, and would go on and on and on at great length about the uses for popple. The fact they could call a trash tree useful seemed worth sneering at, when I was young, and the only reason I know of popple’s uses is because I learned how to parody their learnedness.
It is a trash tree because it decays swiftly, if it stays wet. It would not make a good fence post, as the part in the ground would rot in a couple years. Also, perhaps because it grows so swiftly, the branches are not as deeply embedded in the trunks as other trees are, and can snap off with ease. Where an oak branch joins a tree with a strength boat-builders once coveted and used for ribs of ships, popple has no such structural integrity, and in fact they are a dangerous tree to climb, as I learned as a boy, when branches kept breaking off beneath me when I was far up a tree, to my great alarm.
Actually branches may break off easily for a reason, as they can easily re-root and form a new tree. Some old farmers actually used popple as fenceposts, because, if one took care, they would re-root and be living posts. (Willow was even better for such living posts.)
Under the right conditions popple can send up shoots from its roots, and grow an entire grove of trees from what began as a lone seedling. This is often seen out west, where an entire mountainside may be covered by what looks like hundreds of aspen, but is actually a single organism. In this respect some popple might be bigger than sequoia and older than bristle-cone pines.
Here in the east popple is most often spread by their seeds. The trees bloom like pussy willows in the spring, but the blooms get as long as big caterpillars and then produce huge amounts of pollen that can make a black car yellow, if the car is parked beneath. Then popple free seeds that float like dandelion seeds do, but in such enormous amounts that it can look like it is snowing. The drifting of such fluff ensures that popple are the first tree to sprout in any abandoned field, or in the meadow that appears when an abandoned beaver dam breaks, and the old pond vanishes. Within five years, the beavers can move back, and repair their dam, because popple is one of their favorite foods.
Because the trees grow so swiftly, (most don’t survive fifty years, and a hundred-year-old popple is rare,) the wood is very light when dry. It has little flavor, and was once used to box cheese and for kitchen implements, but its light weight meant that it was used a lot for the wooden chassis of old time wagons, because horses preferred lighter wagons. Despite the fact branches break easily from trunks, the wood (when straight grained and knot-free) is surprisingly flexible and bouncy, and difficult to break.
I don’t really understand how the same wood can first snap easily and later refuse to break, but have seen the toughness of the soft wood cause me trouble. One time I was stuffing popple into a wood chipper, thinking the chipper would grind up the soft wood with ease, but instead the chipper ground to a halt. The popple had turned into long, flat strings which were so flexible they utterly bound up the guts of the machine. I had to spend an hour laboriously cutting away the strands with a knife, and pulling them out, before I could restart the chipper and get back to work.
Having described how surprising tough the wood is, whether as a kitchen spoon or a wagon chassis, I hasten to add it has to be to be dried swiftly, because if given half a chance popple reabsorbs water like a sponge, and then is swift to rot.
Robert Frost wrote a poem about a farmer who buried his young son in a casket of popple wood. The farmer was so insensitive that he was surprised when his wife got upset, because he remarked, (about the wood, not the son), that it was swift to grow and swift to rot.
All these thoughts were passing through my head as I chainsawed up a popple to use in the pasture campfire, at the Childcare today. Old facts wandered through my head, such as: Popple only makes good firewood if you can keep it out of the rain. Even bone dry wood can swiftly become so sodden it is nearly unburnable, if it is left in the rain.
I was cutting the lower half of a tree that lost a large part of its top in an ice-storm six years ago. The lower half lived on in a hopeless sort of way, and finally died last year. The upper half, sprawled at the edge of the pasture, was a favorite playground toy of the children, which they called “the monkey tree.” I have been told I can’t cut up the “monkey tree” for firewood, but the lower half was mine. It thudded to earth, and I was busily cutting the trunk into 18-inch-sections, but stopped sawing as the children came out to play. As they clambered all over the new trunk and played with the sawdust (and informed me I wasn’t allowed to use the new trunk for firewood,) I looked over at the nearby “monkey tree,” thinking how it had proved me wrong.
I figured the “monkey tree” would swiftly rot, and therefore have quite regularly put the entire weight of my body on its barkless branches, testing them, (preferring them to break under my weight than to snap beneath an unsuspecting child.) Much to my amazement the tree hasn’t rotted a bit. Likely it is because it has stayed dry enough.
However there is another thing about popple I probably should mention. It may explain why the “monkey tree” is not rotting the way I expect a trash tree to rot.
The word “popple” actually is used to describe three different species of tree, here in New England. The old-timers, talking on and on and on about wood, likely knew which one they were talking about when they used the word “popple,” and likely would state this popple is a popple that rots more slowly than other popple.
I, however, didn’t listen. I can only wonder how much they knew has been lost by fellows like me.