The southwestward point of an elongated knoll aims out the location of a short, shaded tumble of James River water known as “Cooper’s Rifle.” On the downward slope of this verdant apex of earth, there grows a muscular deodar cedar tree who has overseen that flow of water since the days when humans made their presence known only by the infrequent rumble of gravity-pulled locomotives or the occasional “cloppety-clop” of horse hooves.
She was a smooth-skinned sapling in those days, and while finding herself far separated from her homeland in the western Himalayas, her isolated stance on this sunny rise in Richmond allowed a full, long-armed embrace of the sun’s radiance.
At river level this immigrant has, on very rare occasion, seen the pulsing James bleed itself down to the granite bone, but on more frequent occasion has seen swollen surges of rainwater gathered from a 10-thousand-square-mile area of Virginia’s mountain and piedmont regions raging through the narrow valley below with the sound and feel of boiling earthquakes. Witnessed so many of these rare and violent hydro-pulses, has this tree, that she must certainly be considered amongst the veterans of respiring life on earth. Not ancient, mind you. Many life forms breathe longer than this tree’s 120 or so years, but many, many more life forms, including me, run out of breath much sooner, and only a select minority have been participants in earth’s great CO2-O2 exchange since the late 19th century. In consideration, then, of not only her long-lived earth seniority but also her wide panorama of the falling James just west of downtown Richmond, it is safe to say that this old girl has seen some stuff.
But it’s hard to keep a nice view all to yourself, and in more recent years the old stalk has shared this vantage with a proliferating number of humans arriving on footsteps. Artists, philosophers, serious adults – those eager for their life experience to mean or represent something beyond the self-evident. And then multitudes of the more carefree, less uncomfortable humans as well. Lovers, players, children – those momentarily accepting life on earth at its face value. Yes, I suppose most every type of human has looked with this tree over the grassy knoll and in the direction of Cooper’s Rifle, and I suppose many a wandering hand has read the bumpy braille of its aging lower trunk.
My hand has. As a child, as a young man, and as whatever it is I am today. Mine has, and does, and the interaction of aging hand with aging tree each time represents a new read.
Actually, as it turns out, what I am on this day is a father, and the latest footsteps arriving on the knoll belong to my younger daughter and me. On a pleasant, sun drenched December 27th of the year 2013 we arrive representing both categories of visitor. Brooke the carefree child. Me, well . . . me a bit less comfortable.
When I was in Brooke’s category in the mid to late 1970s, and by the time I arrived to see this view that had 85 years earlier captured the interest and imagination of a prosperous man named Dooley, we humans had learned to roll along without the help of horses or locomotives, and then to roll along faster and faster, and even to propel and blast ourselves through the air and into space, all the while continuing to measure our ever advancing power and speed by the original standard – that of a single horse. Back then, back on horseback in 1886, James Dooley liked the scene from this knoll so much he bought not only the view but 100 acres of the surrounding land and built a stone mansion atop the knoll. Men often christen their most prized earthly possessions to signify their most prized earthly companions, and in that tradition James would name this beautiful tract of dairy farmland along the James River “Maymont” to honor his loving wife, Sallie May Dooley.
James was a wealthy man, but one of compassion and respect for the wide range of humanity that buoyed his prosperity. In the gilded age of the late 19th century, a time before corporate taxes and free-trade laws, many men like Dooley developed extensive wealth, but not quite so many of these men, like Dooley, recognized that rising collaterally with their affluence was the opportunity and responsibility to lead and shape society in a wholesome way. James would serve on the board of the St. Joseph’s Orphanage for 50 years, the board of the Medical College of Virginia, and would fund the building of the Dooley Hospital. His love of art and learning and his advocacy for universal public education would inspire his donation of a Richmond building for lessons and lectures.
In addition to her own humanitarian efforts and artistic endeavors, Sallie was also an avid student of horticulture. As the mansion was completed in 1893, she played an active role in the selection and placement of trees that would transform the cow pasture of the past into the tree pasture of the future. At Maymont the Dooleys would create a museum of trees – an arboretum. And this is where the aforementioned tree on the knoll enters the story. At some point before the turn of the 20th century this tree and some of its brothers and sisters of the genus “Cedrus” and species “deodara” were selected by the Dooleys for prominent positions on the knoll just below the mansion and between the carriage house row and the Italian garden.
And there they still grow! Old, stately members of the plant kingdom. Exotic emissaries. The national tree of Pakistan, where its common name in Sanskrit is “Devadru,” meaning “Wood of the Gods.” Right here in Richmond!
Thousands of miles from here in the Himalayan mountains forests full of Cedrus deodara are the spiritual homes for sages and families devoted to the Hindu god, Shiva. Worship of Shiva often involves arduous meditation practices under the boughs of deodara. The tree itself is considered divine, and the wood is used extensively in the construction and landscaping of Hindu temples. The inner wood is fragrant, and used in incense. The oil is used in aromatherapy. In modern America you can go to almost any tree nursery and find a baby Cedrus deodara, but much more interesting it is to find and spend time with senior citizen trees like the ones standing sentry near the Maymont mansion.
This one on the knoll was standing in that very place for lavish parties at the height of the gilded age, and was still there when James and Sallie passed away in the middle 1920s, at which time the couple made their most generous gift yet to the welfare of Richmonders. The Dooleys donated their mansion, their view from the knoll, their deodar cedar trees, and the rest of the 100 acre Maymont property to the citizens of Richmond. They just gave it to us!
And so even as down below the iron-framed Nickel Bridge was completed in 1925 to connect Richmond proper with a new development south of the James called Westover Hills, the deodar on the knoll began to take on a much broader range of visitors. Perhaps revelers of the roaring twenties. Perhaps those carrying their last dimes in their pockets during the Great Depression. Perhaps lonely women whose husbands had gone off to fight a major world war in the 30s and 40s. This deodara was there as the translucent blue of the sky above began to be ripped and seamed by the contrails of howling jet airplanes, and as the peaceful night sky was made more restless by man-made stars running silently in straight lines from horizon to horizon.
And yes, this weathered and experienced deodar cedar planted by the Dooleys still stands today in the place where its roots first grasped the earth of the North American continent. Brooke says it feels like she is being held by a giant hand. She climbs around at the base of the fingers where rough bark has been polished smooth by thousands of other climbing hands and feet. The lower trunks or palms of Maymont’s deodars are massive, though the tops or tips of the fingers tend to die back with the type of frost bite in deep freezes. Adapting to survive, these trees crouch closer to the earth, growing multiple, rotund lower stems separated by dark nooks and chambers; natural tree houses, ideal for a playing child. Today as this divine, skyward reaching hand of deodara sifts the spirit of a small, exuberant child through its fingers, a thoughtful father looks on wondering…mustn’t this be what they had in mind all along?
We don’t know when exactly the Dooleys decided that their beloved Maymont would one day belong to Richmonders, but I like to think that this childless couple of rare sensibility anticipated my daughter and me the moment they placed the young saplings in the earth. Perhaps James and Sallie would never have anticipated the denim jeans, the hooded sweatshirt, or the athletic shoes of the “young lady,” nor could they have anticipated the tattered ball cap or the hand held phone-camera of the “gentleman,” but I do believe they could imagine our faces, our hands, and most importantly our needs. I like to believe that the image of future generations playing happily or meditating thoughtfully with trees like Devadru, the Wood of the Gods, was the very inspiration for the special gift that is Maymont.