A row of Populus Nigra (Latin for “people of the dark”), otherwise known as Lombardy Poplars, seems to be following me. I feel pursued by this long border of eighty-plus year old poplars on the west edge of our farm. The trees themselves, supposedly nearing the end of a typical poplar life span, are grand massively tall specimens, their leaves and branches noisily reacting to the tiniest of breezes. In greater winds, they bend and sway wildly, almost elastic. The trees themselves are certainly not going anywhere in their hot pursuit of me, but beneath the ground is a remarkable stealth root system that is creeping outward, reaching inch by inch closer to the house.
That is what strikes fear in my heart.
If I leave those roots undisturbed for only a few months, they swell to arm size, lying just below the surface of the ground, busily sprouting numerous new little Populus Nigra along the length of the root. These are no cute babyish innocent little seedlings. These are seriously hungry plants determined to be fed from the roots as if from a fire hose. They literally put on inches over a week; they are over 6 feet tall in a month or two. If I am not paying attention, suddenly I’m faced with dozens of new poplar babies, each sucking on a communal maternal umbilical cord.
I have no choice but to seek and destroy on a regular basis. It is a shock and awe operation. I’m shocked at the growth and awed at the strength of the adversary. Many of these simply cannot be pulled up from the dust by hand as the process results in a root crawling many yards long, heading east toward the house like a heat-seeking missile. To finish off the job, sometimes the root must be removed entirely by tractor. I am here to certify that it is impossible to remove sufficient root system to stem the Populus Nigra tide. It will always return, healthier than before.
I do have to admire this tree for its fortitude as well as its beauty. As a wind break, it is unparalleled, its leaves melodious in the breeze. It sheds its foliage as well as dying branches in the fall, messily scattering itself as far as arboreally possible, so tends to precipitate warming bonfires on autumn evenings. Lastly, it makes for great artwork by the likes of Monet and Van Gogh, creating predictability, uniformity and symmetry both in their paintings and in the palette of our farmscape.
The poplars may be pursuing me but I enjoy the chase. I gaze with appreciation at our row of poplars’ dark outline against the horizon during orange sunsets. I miss their hubbub of constant activity when their leaves drop for winter. Stripped naked, they wait in surreptitious silence for the rush of spring warmth and moisture to start creeping forward again, the gush of sap plumping up seedlings like balloons, once again growing clones against all odds.
My husband suggested it was time to take the poplars down before they break over in their old age, overcome in the strong northeasters. I must disagree. They deserve the chance to fight off our struggle to the finish to prevent infiltration beyond their defined border row.
Being pursued by a tree is never a bad thing. I am humbled their shallow roots will likely outlast me even as I try to take them out, inviting me into the dust to join them.
poplars in autumn –Van Gogh
Avenue of Poplars — Van Gogh