Remains of day

Thu, 01/26/2012 - 4:40am

On Saturday it snowed, more, it seemed, than had been forecast but far less than I had dreaded, given the lack of panic in the newscasters. It was a weekend, there was no hysteria over school closings and things felt calmer. I worry when they are not in a frenzy.

It can be so different just between different parts of the island; there’s the familiar feeling that while I know the weather line has to fall somewhere, I never expect it to be where I am standing. Closest to town, where the road runs at the edge of the sea, the pavement is clear from wind and salt spray and sand. Moving north, travel is more difficult, the traffic enough to pack down the snow but not enough to disperse it.

The wind blew Saturday and at some point during the day turned icy, leaving parking lots slick and dangerous. The snow, though, was not enough to drift over the turn into my road, and it was cold, dry powder where there has been no traffic.

The day came slowly, but even in the predawn, the world was a soft blue and brown and white patchwork. Snow covered the ground and did hurry the sunrise, even on a cloudy day.

A day later it was raining. I am not complaining about the lack of deep cold and I hope this pattern, whacky as it is, continues.

My mother sometime spoke of the Osage orange trees that were orphans, left from the days of the grand Hygeia, the long hotel that perched where the police/fire/rescue buildings now stands. There was no building on the corner; what is now the park was overgrown, but the same funny fruit fell at season’s end along the side of the road.

It was years later that my golden dog, Shad — who, like most retrievers, loved tennis balls with a disconcertingly focused narrow-mindedness — spied them. We needed only drive up the hill for him to see these “oranges,” roughly the size and color of tennis balls, and start whimpering, baffled that I would pass by such a treasure trove.

That was when I first looked them up in an old book, one brought to Block Island when my grandfather, a widower, suffered a stroke and moved here. He came to live with his only child — my mother — and her husband and their little boy. From the few photographs we have, it seemed he was happy to be able to spend all his time with his little grandson, my older brother. I never knew him; he died before I was born.

But I have these books he decided to keep, among them one copyrighted in 1917, titled simply “Trees” on its cover, part of a Little Nature Library. Its language is sometimes dated; it boasts it is “with forty-eight illustrations, sixteen being in color.”

It is there I go when looking for quirky information not in the more modern books. I do so now because some of these trees have been recently... trimmed. They now have to them the look of Tim Burton films of a certain era, Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice.

I go to the index and open the book to find two pennies in the Osage orange pages, bright and shiny, both dated 2000, although I imagine they were not brand new when I last looked in this volume.

“Related to figs and mulberries, but solitary in the genus torylon, is the Osage orange, a handsome round-headed tree, native of eastern North America, whose fleshy roots and milky, bitter, rubbery sap reveal its family connections with the tropical rubber plants. The fruits are great yellow-green globes, four to five inches in diameter, covered on the outside by crowded, one-seeded berries.”

[The fruit, of course, are the ones we have all seen at the edge of Negus Park and on Beach Avenue, near the Hygeia annex.]

“The aborigines, especially of the Osage tribe, in the middle Mississippi Valley, cherished these trees for their orange-yellow wood, which is hard, heavy, flexible, and strong — the best bow-wood to be found east of the Rocky Mountains. When the settlers came, the sharp thorns with which the branches are effectually armed appealed strongly to the busy farmers and the tree was widely played for hedges. Nurserymen produced them by thousands, from cuttings of root and branch. These trees made rapid growth and seemed most promising as a solution of the fencing problem, but they did not prove hardy in Iowa and neighboring states. Even now the remnants of those old winter-killed hedges may be found on farm boundaries, individual trees having been able to survive.

“The native Osage orange timber is about all gone, for the rich bottom lands where it once grew most abundantly in Oklahoma and Texas have been converted into farm land.

“However, the growing of Osage orange timber for posts is on the increase. Systematically maintained, plantations pay well. The wood is exceptionally durable in soil. Good prices are paid for posts in local markets. Twenty-five posts can be grown to the rod in rows of a plantation; they grow rapidly and send up new shoots from the roots.

“The brilliant, leathery leaves and conspicuous green fruits make this native bow-wood a very striking lawn tree. It holds its foliage well into the autumn and turns at length into a mass of gold. It harbors few insects, has handsome bark, and is altogether a distinguished, foreign-looking tree.”

It is that description that makes it easy to understand how these trees from the south central part of the country came to be planted on the grounds of a hotel on Block Island. Other, more modern, sources confirm that the trees have great powers of adaptation and have proven hardy over much of the United States.

The trees sound much grander than those that have remained here, the legacy of the old hotel, but the photos of the fruits are what we have been seeing along the road for decades, perhaps close to a century.

I hope we will continue to see them, quirky remains of days of grand hotels.