I’m sitting next to the fireplace, where flames flicker and burning wood pops, sending small embers here and there within the confines of the firebox. Mug of homemade hot chocolate in hand, I peruse a recent copy of the West Point News, the weekly paper from my hometown in Nebraska. The big story is about an early November ice storm that tore ice-laden utility lines from their moorings and caused major damage to trees in the area.
The story jogged my memory about the ice storm that wreaked havoc on Limaland in January of 2005. Utility lines lay in ice-covered chaos on buildings, in yards and on thoroughfares; sparking wires and flames on power poles glowed in the dark.
As I stepped outside that evening and the next morning, I could hear the cracking and crashing of branches and trees as they lost their grip, with audible mayhem penetrating the normally peaceful soundscape of the neighborhood. Other than a couple of small branches, our very large white oak went unscathed. It’s a tough old tree.
Over the following days streets were cleared, power was restored, insurance claims were filed and eventually life returned to normal. The weather started a war, but we won the battle.
I take an interest in the West Point storm because of damage to trees on the property where I spent my formative years. It is a two-acre tract of land in West Point where my great-grandfather, Cornelius Hugo, built his house in 1910. Trees he planted were still alive in those formative years, including American elm trees that shaded the house our family eventually moved into.
Cornelius’ son, George, developed an interest in arboriculture, planting, experimenting and grafting trees. And that’s how my late father Al came by his love of trees: by tagging along with Grandpa George. The old adage, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is well-rooted in our family. All seven of Al’s and our late mother Roslyn’s children have that same appreciation for trees.
My sister Rita visited a nursery following the recent storm to check on replacement trees for the property, now owned by my nephew, Todd Hugo, and his growing family. That’s six generations, and as Rita told an employee of the nursery: “We are tree people.”
About that apple: Todd’s brother, Nick, and his young family, who live across the street from Todd, have taken up residence on the place where his great-grandfather George studied trees. I have no doubt my young nieces and nephews will grow up with that same love of trees. That love will grow by following and helping their fathers plant the new trees in the sandy loam soil on the two properties before the ground freezes. You have to start ‘em young. The children will also come to know the wisdom of Great-Grandpa Al: “If you lose a tree, you plant another in its place.”
Mom and Dad purchased the acreage on Sherman Street in 1956 and, knowing Dad, he couldn’t wait to start turning the soil, because as he once said, “The Hugos are planters.” The next growing season no doubt couldn’t come soon enough. In addition to those elms and a hackberry that shaded the house, there was a very large mulberry (a great climbing tree) from which we enjoyed the fruit, especially in the pies that Mom baked for us. However, she did not like it when the birds feasted on the berries and left their mark on the clean laundry that was drying on the clothesline. She muttered more than once about getting rid of the thing. Hey Mom, the tree is still living, albeit ragged in stature.
There was also a very large ash tree with the perfect branch structure on which to build a treehouse, and build it we did. The tree eventually died a slow death, but Dad knew dead trees were still of use, especially to the red-headed woodpeckers and the insects they probed for in the ghost tree. The tree is gone, but memories of a youth well-lived are alive and well.
As far as I know, Dad didn’t have a formal plan to turn the place into Al’s arboretum. He enjoyed trees and wanted to have as much variety in species and from as many parts of the country as possible. He’d start trees from seed, watch them sprout and find a spot to plant them. Visits to garden centers, perhaps in a big city like Omaha, became part of the process. Reading, doing research, talking to experts and adding books to his ever-growing library gave him the knowledge to pursue his passion for trees and the desire to share it with his children and others.
Eventually Dad and we three older brothers would take vacation trips to the mountain west — places like Colorado and Wyoming. He would dig up small coniferous trees, ready them for the trip home and their new place in the Nebraska soil. He could not visit his beloved mountains without bringing some parts of them, including rocks, home with him. From one of his mountain climbing trips to the Cascades of Washington, he found a new home for a hemlock in his arboretum.
A yellow poplar, also known as a tulip tree, distinguished by its beautiful tulip-shaped flowers and leaves, occupies a prominent spot along Sherman Street. That specimen began life as a seedling in our yard in Lima, while the parent tree thrives in the yard next door to us. Since that species is not native to Nebraska, he couldn’t resist. Dad dug it up and took it home with him. I think of him when I go back to my roots: part of my place at his place.
My brother, Jerry, referred to the trees that came from elsewhere, like the white pines from Wisconsin, as “The Traveling Trees.” You may be familiar with the former band known as The Traveling Wilburys and their music. I would say the trees Jerry spoke of give our family and visitors to the place their own brand of music, with the wind and breezes of Nebraska as their backing band. Rustling. Swooshing. Peaceful. Raucous. Music for those who seek solace among the spruces, maples, pines, sweet gum, dawn redwood, ginkgo, red buckeye, Kentucky coffee tree and a host of others.
The collection of trees and shrubs in Al’s arboretum grew to more than 50 species. Many are still with us. All tended with love and good care. As we would do with a child. Dad once said: “Talk to the buds. They will listen.”
Phil Hugo lives in Lima.