Today my family and I went for a walk along the Old Stone Arch Bridge in Keene and followed that with a visit to North Cemetery. Like the Washington Street Cemetery the graves here are all very old from the time of the city's founding. Lots of death's heads, cherubs, and urns and willows on the headstones. Shortly after arriving, we spotted this giant Eastern Hemlock.
Just as a reference for size, the below photo is me standing next to this very large Eastern Hemlock.What particularly caught our attention about this tree was that it obviously wasn't there when these people were buried around it, or at least certainly not much of a tree at all. The headstones immediately uphill from it face it, which would mean that to bury people under the tree would mean to quite literally dig under the tree. Not very likely at all. Upon closer examination I discovered the most recent graves around the tree were of Captain Samuel Kingsbury and his wife Sarah, both of whom died within eight days of each other in October of 1863. I shall like to learn more about their story and may have to dig my Keene history books out of their box before we move.You likely noticed as I did that the massive roots of the tree have grown around part of the headstone. The headstone came first.
It would seem that the tree is most likely no older than 150 years, or if so only just barely. It could have been a sapling or a beanpole when the graves of Sarah and the Captain were dug.
Not having any sort of measuring tape on me, I could only get a best estimate of its diameter at breast height (d.b.h.). A warm hug of this beautiful giant revealed my armspan wrapped approximately halfway around the circumference of this old Hemlock. My armspan is around 65 inches, so the circumference at breast height is about 130 inches. From this I was able to calculate a rough d.b.h. of 41 inches.
If this shade-tolerant tree were growing under dense canopy cover, it could be as old as 200 years given a d.b.h. of 41 inches. This is an old cemetery with headstones dating back as far as 1793, including the first wife of Nathaniel Kingsbury also buried near the base of this tree. It seems highly unlikely there was dense suppression. Most likely this tree grew all of its life in the wide open or under the slightest shade from a nearby tree long since dead and stump-sprouting. This means it could have grown as quickly as 2.5 inches per decade. At that rate, this Hemlock would be around 160 years old.
Assuming I'm wrong about the shade cover, even at 200 years old this tree would have only been about 6 inches in diameter when the youngest of the Kingsbury family were buried at the base of this tree. It's quite possible they buried them in the shade of a Hemlock. The tree also would not have been very tall so it seems unlikely they would have dug graves right under its shade. Most likely the tree was not there or was a sapling. The rough calculation of 160 years at the fastest possible growth rate seems to line up with this tree either just being a sapling at the time Sarah and the Captain died or taking root in the soil just after they were buried.
It was a beautiful day for a walk and this proved a fun little mystery to piece together while exploring and expanding our sense of place in our town. What made this day even more special was that my soon-to-be six years old son chose to go here so he could learn. He got to learn a bit about history, a bit about nature, and a bit about aging a tree from d.b.h.