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People walking by on the sidewalk stop in their tracks and look up with their mouths open, craning their necks to see its crown. Some run right up to it and press their entire bodies up against the rough bark, stretching their arms out to the side with hands splayed to reach as far around as possible. Others take photos from different angles, stepping back on the parkway or even to the other side of the street to take it all in.
The elm tree in Maple Court is one of the venerable old trees in Evanston. A grand presence in the courtyard of the condominium building at 1115-1133 Maple Ave., the more than five-foot diameter trunk of this tree has been known to attract attention along with its four-story height. According to Maple Court residents, no one knows its exact age, and there is ongoing speculation: was the building built around the tree or was the tree planted when the structure of Maple Court was already there to shelter and frame it?
Either way, the elm and the building have a symbiotic relationship. Maple Court was built in 1915, during an era when the city needed more housing and urged architects to design apartment buildings to be good aesthetic companions to their single-family counterparts. A talented architect, George S. Kingsley, designed the building with distinctive details and the same sturdiness of his warehouses, including a courtyard within the three wings of the building. Positioned in the center front of the courtyard, the elm has had the benefit of shelter along with enough space to grow with no impediment, its vase-shaped canopy fanning out into the sky fulfilling its own natural destiny.
The symbiosis doesn’t end there. The people of Maple Court have great affection for this tree. Every home in the building basks in the foresty feel it creates: each courtyard-facing window opens on to a different view of the vibrant sheer magnificence of this gorgeous free-flowing centenarian tree.
One could even say this tree has heart and courage. Struck by lightning three times, it is scarred in a jagged line on its south trunk, but healthy bark has grown over it. And how did it survive Dutch Elm all these years? The four linden trees that stand sentinel around the elm were planted with the concern that residents not be left with a barren landscape in the event of its demise. Yet the elm persisted, and the residents – doting on it like the adult children of an elderly parent – now hire an arborist to care for the tree.
The stately elm is the central figure in an ecosystem of rabbits, squirrels, birds, skunks, and possum known to inhabit the property. Among the residents are avid gardeners who lovingly tend the plants in the courtyard, including an understory of witch hazel, redbud and Japanese maples. The north and south sides of the building also have gardens with flowers, shrubs and honey locust trees, and the porches that accompany most units line up in rows of three with colorful window boxes and potted plants in the summer, birdfeeders and bird baths attracting an ever-present array of birds.
And in the larger world, there are the vestiges of Evanston’s more rural past. Another old elm towers over the corner at Maple Avenue and Greenleaf Street. Enormous gnarled old oak trees fill the sky east of Maple Court, and from a bird’s eye view, dot a zigzag path all the way to the lake. Do they all communicate with each other? How many friends have they lost?
In the 2021 bestselling book, Finding the Mother Tree, forest ecology professor Suzanne Simard at the University of British Columbia explains in detail the network of connections among the roots and fungal filaments in the earth around old growth forests and how the oldest trees share nutrients with their offspring and even calibrate which trees are most vulnerable and need more help. The intelligence and communication among these plants continues to be studied and documented. Perhaps this is why human beings have sometimes believed them housing for gods or spirits.
Our love for trees is not misplaced. They give and give and give and give and give. Oxygen from our CO2. Shelter from the storm. Shade to cool our bodies in summer. Beauty and grace that lift our gaze far above a ground-level view with awe for the things we don’t understand.