Helen Keller's Moon Trees
It's a tradition for astronauts to take a personal item or two into space with them. Mementos they bring back home, reminders of an amazing journey few humans will ever experience.
Fifty years ago, Astronaut Stuart Roosa wanted to do more. Roosa was the astronaut controlling the command module “Kitty Hawk” orbiting the moon when, on January 31, 1971, Alan Shephard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the lunar surface, only the third NASA crew to do so.
Sidenote time: You might remember that trip as the one Shephard hits a golf ball while on the moon's surface.
Prior to becoming an astronaut Roosa worked as a US Forest Service smoke jumper, those crazy people parachuting into the middle of raging forest fires.
It just seemed natural then, the memento Roosa chose to take on his moon mission would be tree seeds, 2,000 of them; loblolly pine, sycamore, sweet gum, redwood and Douglas fir.
This is the point at which we take a short break in our narrative and answer the question that is surely on the top of your mind, what does any of this have to do with Helen Keller?
Well, I learned about moon trees when I stumbled upon one, fully grown, as I was strolling through the The Clearing Park at Ivy Green, which also happens to be Helen Keller’s birthplace and home, the one you see depicted in the movie, “The Miracle Worker.”
Once Roosa returned to terra firma, the Forest Service began checking to see if the seeds would actually grow. Back in those days we were just beginning to learn what happens when people, and seeds, fly around the moon a few hundred thousand miles away from Earth.
Not only did those little seeds grow, they grew a little too well. The ones they used for testing outgrew the Houston facility where they were planted and died.
Fortunately, Roosa took so many seeds on his moon trip there were plenty of extras. Those were sent to a Forest Service station in Gulfport, Mississippi, where they had the room they needed to grow and thrive.
The Gulfport plantings were then given away to sites all over the country and even outside the United States, mostly in 1975 and ‘76.
Which brings us to Ivy Green. The tree there, a loblolly pine, was planted in October, 1976, and continues to be quite healthy.
If you’re curious about whether or not there are any moon trees near you, you’ll find a complete list, as best as people know anyway, on NASA’s website.
There's one close to my neck of the woods, at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. At least we think there is.
An April, 1976, article in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil newspaper tells of a moon seed being planted there. Apparently though, no one thought future generations might actually want to know about the tree and where it came from. No marker was put beside it and no one knows where it is exactly, or even if it's still alive. If you know more send me a message.
Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s birthplace, and The Clearing next to it, are located in Tuscumbia, Alabama, just south of the Tennessee/Alabama state line, 70 miles due west of Huntsville.
Being there is like walking into the movie. Those of a certain age know what I’m talking about.
The water pump is right there, behind the house. The water pump where Keller’s teacher forces her hand under the water, where Keller learns the word for water, where the breakthrough happens and she begins to understand about words and language.
The dining room where Keller wanders around the table, eating food from everyone’s plate. Guides say both the water pump and dining room scenes were accurately portrayed in the movie.
Sullivan’s and Keller’s rooms, the cottage next door where Keller was born, where Sullivan took Keller to isolate her from her parents in order to be able to control her tantrums. Some of Keller's toys are on display inside.
A small museum takes up space in one of the main house’s rooms, much of the furnishings throughout the buildings are original.
A great time to visit would be early June through mid-July when they perform “The Miracle Worker” on stage in a large amphitheater located near the rear of the property.
The home is open for tours. There is a small fee. You can walk the grounds around the houses and see the moon tree free of charge.
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