Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 9, 2010

Under the spreading ginkgo tree

People at work were excited when the long-awaited parking garage was completed. And they thought I was crazy when I didn't jump at the chance to get a permit to park there. After all, it's right next door to Kedzie Hall, where I have my office and teach classes, making it handy on rainy or icy days or when I'm carrying an armload of papers.

But I'm partial to my spot east of McCain Auditorium. It's only a short walk, and the exercise does my body good. When the weather and time of year are right, I have the opportunity to feel the sun, hear the cardinals and smell the freshly-mown grass. And I watch the squirrels bury acorns in the fall and dig them up in the winter and spring.

What I like most about my spot is something that reminds me of the poem by Longfellow that begins, "Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands." Both smithys and chestnut trees are pretty much a thing of the past, but I have a ginkgo tree. My parking stall is at the very edge of the lot and the tree's branches and leaves provide protection from the sun, both in the morning and afternoon.

More than anything, though, it's the ginkgo's lovely fan-shaped leaves that bring me simple pleasures throughout the year.

In the fall, they turn a bright yellow and make a thick carpet around my vehicle. Last year, I scooped up a bunch and took them home with me. I placed some in a wooden bowl for a Thanksgiving centerpiece and piled others into an old wood tool box along with pine cones and fall gourds.

This summer, when a thunderstorm loosened a few branches of the ginkgo and blew them to the ground, I retrieved a small branch filled with vibrant green leaves and put it in a glass canning jar with a little bit of water. It now brightens my kitchen counter.

Always curious, I wanted to know more about the ginkgo.

According to the Japanese American National Museum, the ginkgo biloba, also known as the maidenhair tree, is one of earth's few "living fossils." Several species of the tree grew widely across the world 270 million years ago. While they disappeared from American fossil records seven million years ago, they continued to grow in China.

Monks cultivated the ginkgo in temple gardens from about 1100 A.D. Around the year 1200, they were transported to Japan and also planted near temples. Then, as now, the old trees were revered for their longevity. Four ginkgo trees in Hiroshima, Japan survived the atomic bomb blast on Aug. 6, 1945 - a testament to their heartiness.

Ginkgo nuts are used in Japan as a digestive aid, as a side dish when drinking sake, as an ingredient for pickles and in a steamed egg dish. Many Westerners are familiar with ginkgo biloba as a memory enhancer, although some recent scientific studies have discounted its effectiveness.

The first description of the tree in Japanese literature is from 1530 when the poet Socho wrote in his travel diary that he gathered yellow leaves and gave them as a gift together with a poem. From the 1600s to the 1800s, the ginkgo appeared as a motif on swords, hand mirrors and ceramics, and it remains a popular design on Japanese plates and vases, paintings, kimonos and wood carvings.

The long-lived tree and its unusual leaves seem to "speak" to me as well. When we were in Vermont in January, I bought a necklace with a delicate pewter ginkgo leaf pendant and I wear it often.

About 15 years ago, I made a collage that included a poem I wrote about autumn leaves. I surrounded it with leaves, some real and some in photos. Among the leaves I chose was a ginkgo.

So maybe I am a bit crazy for not coveting a permit for the parking garage. But the pleasure I get from "my" ginkgo tree, well, it makes me feel poetic:

Under the spreading ginkgo tree, my little auto stands ...

Left, bright golden leaves from "my" tree last fall. The unusual vein structure can be clearly seen. Right, a sprig of leaves brightens our kitchen counter at home.

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