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Friday, August 02, 2013

Why We Hate Poplar Trees

My family heritage comes from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Many of my forebears were lumberman. Both my father and uncle loved the white pine forest of Upper Michigan. A favorite family excursion was to pack a picnic lunch and hike deep into the forest, following old logging trails, maybe toting along a .22 rifle or B.B. gun to practice. We found wild wintergreen leaves to chew and picked fern fronds to fend off mosquitoes. My dad was an expert in identifying the tree varieties of the Midwest. But he hated one kind of tree, the poplar. In fact, he did not even call it poplar, but "popple" said with a burst of negative energy, like "pop!"
Routinely, around our family cabin in Michigan, my dad would cut down any poplar tree that dared to grow. He cultivate all varieties of pine, birch and hardwoods like maple. But poplar trees were treated like weeds. They needed to be cut down quickly before they invaded the space of other good trees. So, over the years, I took this as a matter of known fact, that poplars were "bad" trees, meant to be cut down.
My brother Tim and I have discussed the many uniquenesses of our dad over regular phone visits. And this poplar hatred has been one. Today, Tim solved the mystery of why we hate poplar trees. In an extended phone visit to my dad's brother, Eldon, Tim heard a family story we did not know. My grandfather, E.R. Johnson, emigrated to the United States from Sweden when he was 8 years old with his parents. E.R.'s father, August Johnson, experienced devastating famine. To extend bread dough, many Swedes cut down poplar trees and scraped out the moist insides of the bark to make something known as "bark bread." While healthy, it was bitter and sour and became a visceral reminder of famine and hardship. While not overtly talked about (Swedes don't talk overtly!!) this deep animosity to the poplar tree was imprinted in both my dad and uncle. Mystery solved!

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