Clark Hollow Ramblings: Invasion of the Tree from Heaven

When I was a kid growing up in Rappahannock, most folks had a big garden. We had a huge garden. It was way too big when it was time to pull weeds and hoe and chop and pick beans and dig potatoes. But it was a good thing, at least in retrospect.

In our garden, as in most, I imagine, we had a bunch of small poles. They were bean poles, or tomato poles, or you used them to put up a small fence for your peas, or a big fence if you planted those climbing butter beans. And, yes, we called them butter beans even when they were green. Most folks these days call them limas or lima beans. I hated to shell the blasted things, but, oh my, they were so good, especially if you put some thickening in them and cut off some new corn to put in with them. I can taste that succotash now, with a few mashed potatoes and a chunk of cornbread. That was culinary heaven for a country boy.

But, I want to get back to those bean poles. As I said, we used them for everything in the garden, and they lasted for years. And some of you know why they lasted so well. When we needed poles for the garden, we walked across the road to our overgrown field, and cut small, two- to three-inch diameter black locust saplings. You had to be careful for the stickers on them, but once you got the bark peeled off and they dried a bit, you could use them for years. We didn’t leave them in the ground all year. We took them up when we cleaned off the garden and stacked them by the fence. But, even so, they lasted and lasted.

Now, if you will, fast-forward 50 or 60 years to today. Linda and I decided it was time to have some raised beds for vegetables. We have been talking about it for years. We never had this problem in long ago days, but now you have to do something to keep the deer out of your garden. Seems like a simple enough thing. I’ll just go to the nearest locust thicket and cut a dozen bean poles, strip the bark off them, and then I’ll put up a fence.

Not so fast. I have been unable to find a locust thicket. Seriously, I have looked, and I can find grown-over fields and thickets, but I can’t find any small locust. Our thickets are full of nothing but these nasty high heaven trees. Whoever gave these trees that name, ought to have to use them for bean poles. The fact is, they are good for nothing that I have been able to find. (Kind of like the coyotes, and, by the way, I liked the pictures.)

Look along the road sides, and all you see is ailanthus altissima, or tree of heaven, or, as we used to call them, high heaven trees. They are terribly invasive. When you cut them down, they put up sprouts everywhere and the wood stinks (to high heaven?), and they are almost worthless as firewood. As somebody who wastes next to nothing, I have burned some of them in the wood stove. As dad used to say, they’ll make ashes, but that’s about it.

A year or two ago, I cut one almost out of spite to use for a pole to put a blue bird house on. In three weeks, the thing had put out sprouts. By the fall of the year, it had rotted off even with the ground.

These trees are native to mainland China and Taiwan. Like the people who imported starlings and gypsy moths, I suppose they thought they were doing a good thing. I surely wish they would come and take them back. I need some good locust bean poles.

Richard Brady
About Richard Brady 134 Articles

Richard Brady was born and raised within sight of Rappahannock Peak, as was his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, etc. He graduated from George Mason University and was employed for 35 years with various agencies of the federal government. He retired in 2001, and he and his wife, Linda, live in Flint Hill, Va.