CAMBRIDGE — The “Matriarch Tree” in Woodlands Cemetery has fallen, but its life is not over.
Elizabeth Nichols-Ross, former co-owner of what is now Ackley, Ross & Gariepy Funeral Home, enjoys strolling through the rural graveyard with its wonderful view of the Cambridge Valley. Nichols-Ross was familiar with the huge sugar maple atop the back section of the cemetery, near the graves of some of the area’s most notable former residents. Over the years, the tree lost its branches, becoming little more than a massive trunk. On August 16, the trunk itself collapsed into the passable road.
Usually the cemetery staff removed the debris and cut down anything that could be used as firewood.
“But the tree spoke to me,” Nichols-Ross said. “She said her name was Mabelle and she deserved better than to be burned.”
The name sounded strange, until Nichols-Ross realized the tree stood near Mabelle Goodman’s grave. There were also two Elizabeths nearby. Nichols-Ross thinks the tree may have reached out to her because she knew it could get his attention.
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Nichols-Ross asked around and was referred to Jared Woodcock, owner of Timberdoodle Horse Logging and Ecological Land Management in Shushan. Woodcock owns a portable sawmill to add value to the timber he harvests for his customers.
Woodcock estimated Mabelle’s age at over 180, possibly up to 200, although the rot in the center makes exact determination difficult. Mabelle is what foresters call a “wolf tree”, with a short trunk and a “huge big crown”, he said. “It grew in a large open area.” Wolves usually form at the edge or between fields. Mabelle may have marked a long-lost row of fences on the farm that was purchased for Woodlands in 1858. By this time, Mabelle had already at least nearly two decades of growth, and the cemetery was laid out around her.
Wolves aren’t suitable for lumber, but sugar maple “is a very popular wood for woodworking,” Woodcock said.
The remaining trunk had “high quality wood with lots of character. It has a nice grain with some quilted maple sections. There is certainly enough material for small projects.
Woodcock drove his sawmill into the graveyard and cut and planed most of the trunk into solid planks. Odd-sized pieces were set aside as raw material for other projects. Local carpenter and videographer John Carlson documented the process.
Nichols-Ross learned that a craftsman was demonstrating woodturning at the Washington County Fair about a week after the tree fell. Roger Abrahamson, who exhibits as Roger the Giant Bowl Turner, agreed to work with a piece if it was green. The result was a wooden bowl, the first object made with Mabelle wood, Nichols-Ross said.
“I had no idea the value of maple wood,” she said.
She wants to distribute it to people who can turn it into wooden spoons, canes, earrings, bowls, furniture or any other object.
“I want to give them pieces of Mabelle so she can live in the future,” she said. “It can take four or five years because the wood has to dry out first.”
Eventually, Nichols-Ross wants to put on an exhibition of wooden Mabelle items in Cambridge and hold an auction, with proceeds going to Woodlands Cemetery for an as yet unnamed project.
“We have beautiful wooden planks that we hope to dry out in three years,” she says. “Green wood is available now.” Nichols-Ross can be contacted at [email protected]
The general rule for drying planks is one year per inch of thickness, Woodcock said. The process can be sped up by kiln-drying after a year, “but air-drying is preferable. Wood is more stable,” he said. “When the tree is almost 200 years old, it’s worth the wait. Trees are patient; we can be patient.