"Rock Elm is one of those species which can leave an immediate impression on the observer" writes Owen Clarkin, who commissioned this painting.
"It frequently develops a rugged growth form with deeply ridged mature bark, pendulous "claw-like" branches, and corky twigs. To me this tree (the "Merrickville Monster") signifies how the common can become rare and eventually obscure, given that Rock Elm is poorly known to the public at present. Rock Elm was historically documented as being a common tree in Ontario, being exported to England as square timber for shipbuilding (etc.) and supporting industries such as the manufacture of hockey sticks, piano frames, vehicle frames, and tool handles. The wood of the species is one of the hardest, strongest, and toughest of any large tree, and ittends to grow with a "good form" for lumber, often with a long straight trunk.
"Rock Elms were reported to frequently attain large sizes, with common mature dimensions being given in literature as 100 feet tall (30.4 metres) with a diameter of 3.5 feet (one metre) in diameter. While not as imposing as its very large and much better known cousin the American Elm, it is clear that Rock Elms often were large, majestic trees. "Drastic overcuttting", to quote the well-known author Harlow, and a lack of re-planting effort combined with Dutch Elm Disease has resulted in a present-day landscape with few Rock Elms and far fewer mature ones. I would estimate that I find a mature Ulmus thomasii about once every 50-100km of road in Eastern Ontario. Fencelines, dry limestone soils, and rich mature forests (often in understory) contain a scattered population of the species, which can be locally abundant especially as root-sprout colonies of young trees.
"This particular tree, still alive in 2014, measures 92 feet (28 metres) tall with a diameter of 3.5 feet (one metre). Such a tree may have been taken for granted a little over a century ago, but in the present day is exceedingly rare. It is possible that this may be the largest living Rock Elm in Canada, and perhaps even the world. Conversations with nearby residents indicate the tree is well known, but many seem to mistake it for a peculiar-looking American Elm.
"This tree is old and likely in the final phase of its life, even in the absence of Dutch Elm Disease, old age will claim it eventually. it is almost certainly over 150 years old and may be well in excess of this given its impressive dimensions, balding bark, and the tendency of Rock Elms to survive as understory trees for decades before claiming a place in the canopy. It is a simply spectacular tree, and its setting at the historic Percival House mansion in downtown Merrickville could not be better. One wonders how many generations have sat in its shade; the tree can be seen as smaller but mature in early photos of the building's grounds."
On 14 March 2014 I wrote:
It is the welcome temperature of 5C as I arrive at about supper time. The sun is still full on the great tree and the old red brick mansion, shining from across the snow-covered Rideau River on the other side of Main Street. The high blue sky's alto cirrus is crossed by a contrail. I move closer to the tree, stepping into the deep softening snow of the front yard and look up at all of the crown, an even haze of fine twigs etched against the sky from fairly straight but wavery upper branches. The characteristic corky thickness of bark is more pronounced on the twigs of inner and lower branches. The main trunks fork with proper acute angles at regular intervals, setting the dominant rhythm of the tree in an elegant, symmetrical shape, but within the shape of the tree, medium sized branches elbow dramatically at all angles, expressing their individuality, like surprise passages in a symphony by Beethoven.
A pair of Ravens course silently overhead as I mark my geographic location. A dog-walker passes on the sidewalk without questioning my business. Cars swish past on the wet street, and as I sit here beside the house writing my notes, the shadow of a building to the northwest creeps up the orange brick sides of the house turning them to an earthy red, just as the shadow of the house itself moves up the trunk of the giant Rock Elm, turning its warm tints to gray. The breeze drops as the full moon climbs up over the black roof that slopes down from the chimney by the tower toward the back of the house. The blue sky dims behind but windows in the dark red wall still reflect pale yellow of the western sky, and the tree's branches have turned black against the sky. Orange streetlight are on now and I pack up and quit the scene.
Dear patrons and supporters,
This painting is the first of a series of magnificent Elm trees, commissioned by Owen Clarkin, who is writing a book on "Trees of Eastern Ontario". It was donated to aid in conservation in the Russell/Carlsbad Springs area.