Richard Horan set himself on an unusual mission: to travel the United States to collect seeds from trees in the yards of famous people in our nation’s history. His quest took him to find trees that gave Elvis shade at Graceland to Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home in Kentucky. Author Richard Horan talks with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about his new book, ““Seeds, One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees that Inspired Famous American Writers.”
GELLERMAN: The world’s oldest tree on record is 9,550 years old - it's a spruce growing in the mountains of Sweden. That’s a record that runs rings around most trees. But here in the United States, we also have old growth with ancient roots - trees that have witnessed much of our history and can testify to the American experience. At least that’s the thesis of Richard Horan’s new book “Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees that Inspired Famous American Writers.”
Horan got the idea when he visited the home of Abraham Lincoln and picked up seeds there from a tree that stood when the President was just a boy. But the book really took root when he visited the house of The King, as Richard Horan told Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.
HORAN: Next stop was Graceland. There were these wonderful, sweet gum seeds - they’re like little Christmas ornaments hanging over the stone wall. And, in fact, it was between the jumpsuit shrine and Elvis’s gravesite on the walkway that I had my sort of epiphany. I was going to go around the country and I was going to gather the seeds of these famous, inspirational people and gather those seeds and plant them and grow a grove of my own.
(Photo: Harper Collins Publishers)
CURWOOD: You visited trees that have been important witnesses - for example, you go to Abe Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, and you have a picture of him next to a tree that’s still there. These trees knew many of the people that you saw - did they tell you anything about them?
HORAN: They did. And that’s the id of this whole journey. When I would arrive at a place - say Rachel Carson’s house in Springdale, Pennsylvania - it’s quiet, no one’s around, you pull up and there’s this soaring tree there. And when you spend a few minutes walking around, looking, getting a sense of the place, there’s an abiding message that seems to linger there. You can feel the presence of the author. You can feel the message that was coming from the landscape and the environment around the home.
CURWOOD: Now at one point in your book, you go to a place that’s not too far from where we are here in Somerville, Massachusetts - you went out to Thoreau’s famous home in Walden Pond in Concord. What was your experience like there?
Walden Pond in Concord, MA inspired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book “Walden; Or, Life in the Woods.”
HORAN: Well that was a pilgrimage. That was an amazing experience. When I went to Walden Pond, it was a crisp, warm fall day. And when I walked into the woods, the wind began to blow, and all of a sudden, the acorns literally began to rain down on me - to such an extent that I had to stop and sit down. And I was very much overcome by that because I felt for sure that Uncle Henry David was looking down and laughing and shaking the trees and letting them know: Here we are.
CURWOOD: (Laughs). Let’s go very famous into American history - the American Presidents and their famous homes. I’m thinking of Thomas Jefferson with Monticello and Mount Vernon where George Washington lived. So what happened when you tried to collect seeds from those places? I imagine the gendarmarie would pounce on you if you took anything away.
HORAN: That was an interesting story because when I got to Mount Vernon, I spoke to the arborist there and told him what my intention was. And he said, ‘Well you realize that we do this for a living - we harvest these seeds and then we propagate them and sell them.’ So he said, ‘But you know, you might find some seeds on the ground there, up, you know, underneath the poplars.
When I went up to the tulip poplars out on the bowling green behind the house, I was amazed that I couldn’t find a single seed. But I had the good luck of underneath one of the poplars was a large shrub. And I could crawl inside there and I found just a handful of these tulip poplars. My daughters were with me and they were, you know, young - and they disowned me at that point - walked away.
Now Monticello is a different place - there’s only one tree left from Thomas Jefferson’s time. It’s a cypress, it’s very old, and there was nothing there that I could find. But I had the good fortune of coming to Monticello a year after the tulip poplar that had remained there during the time of Jefferson - it had been cut down the year before but there were still many of those seeds still left on the ground, so I was able to find some of those.
CURWOOD: So of all the places you visited, of all the seeds that you gathered, what’s your favorite?
HORAN: Well one that comes strongly to mind is my visit to Louisville. And it’s my only athlete in the book - Muhammad Ali. It took me a little while to find out where he had grown up - he grew up on Grand Avenue on the west side of Louisville. So I took a bus there and walked through a pretty tough neighborhood. And when I got to the street - it was a big long avenue - and I noticed there was only one house, halfway down on the right side, that had a tree upfront. And the closer I got, the faster my heart beat, because I realized that that was, in fact, the house where Muhammad Ali grew up.
And square in the middle of his front lawn was a Catalpa tree - a Northern Catalpa tree. And if you know anything about trees, you know that Catalpas have the largest leaves of any North American hardwood. They’re about the size of a sheet of paper and they’re in the shape of a heart. You know, they have these bean pods that hang down, again like Christmas ornaments, and they were all over the place.
And so it didn’t look like anyone was living in the house, but I knocked on the door, and this beautiful little girl answered. I told her who I was and what I was doing and then her equally beautiful mother came behind her and I told her what I was up to, and they just smiled and laughed and said, ‘Go ahead.’ And so there I was out on Muhammad Ali’s front lawn, jumping up like a maniac, trying to get all those seed pods down. But I have so many of his seeds, and for some reason, of all the trees that I grow, his seem to grow fastest and tallest and healthiest. So I have all these Muhammad Ali Catalpas growing in my living room.
CURWOOD: So what are you doing with all of these trees? You’re growing them - some you’re growing in your living room - after a while, that doesn’t work too well, does it?
HORAN: No, it was the cause of a great deal of sleepless nights for about a year and a half. I had all these boxes of seeds, and my living room and all the windowsills in my house were jammed with little seedlings. But I was trying to find someone who would help me grow these seeds and grow this grove of my own. One day I stumbled upon a man named Brian Sayers, who’s the president of the New York Arborists Association, who was as equally fascinated and excited about my idea as I am. So he took the project on, and since then - this has been about a year now - he has built a greenhouse, he’s cataloged something like 20,000 seeds, and his vision is to grow these seeds on his property and to sell them in about seven years when they’re strong enough to be moved and planted.
CURWOOD: Richard Horan’s new book is called “Seeds: One Man’s Journey to Find Trees that Inspired Famous American Writers” - and other famous Americans. Thank you so much, Richard!
HORAN: Thank you, Steve!
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