People never had trouble finding our house.
"It's the one with the giant maple in front," I'd say, "the one with the tire swing."
That was enough. They'd see the tree, massive, 60 feet tall and almost as wide, then behind is, hiding, our 1905 farmhouse.
The tree was one of the oldest in Northbrook: easily 125 years old, and was perhaps the best feature about our place. A living link to the 19th century.
"I bought the tree," I'd tell visitors, "and the house came with it."
In autumn, it was a mountain of orange and yellow. In winter, framed severely against the blue sky. It sprang to life every spring, and in summer was green and cool, interjecting itself between our house and the sun's fierce transit.
The bark was thick, creased, more like armor plate, like something on a gnarled prehistoric beast. How many hours did I sit on the front porch and just stare at it? It was age itself, serenity itself, the embodiment of permanence, of true beauty that endures forever.
But trees, like people, do not actually live forever. And our tree was slowly dying. We noticed it years ago. We tried tending it, hired arborist after arborist to pump nutrients into it, wire together its sagging gigantic limbs—that enormous branch, pointing due south, seemed ready to crack the tree in half.
Every year there was more deadwood, and every year we'd cut the deadwood out and hope for a rally, or at least for the decline to stabilize, though no expert thought that possible. It was slowly falling apart. On morning, maybe five years ago, a 10 foot section that must have weighed 200 pounds was noticed dangling, about 20 feet up, right above the sidewalk, a sword of Damocles. I ran to the hardware store, bought sawhorses, blocked off the sidewalk and called a tree trimmer to get it out before it killed someone.
One tree company, asked for an estimate to cull the deadwood, just turned in a proposal to remove the tree and grind out the stump. Our initial request had not made sense to him. Another guy just looked me directly in the eye and drew his finger across his throat. I felt like we were giving CPR to a corpse.
The arctic winter of 2013/2014 was particularly hard on it. We cleared the deadwood away, again, and hoped for miracle. But this year it came back looking worse than ever. The bark fell away in sheets. The ants moved in. The sap bled down the white, barkless trunk, as if the tree were weeping.
Still, I was going to remove the deadwood again, give what was left another summer. But that one huge arm of the street shot out over the sidewalk. I wasn't just gambling with my own life, kneeling down to pick up the papers, always tossed directly underneath, I wondered if the last thing I'd hear would be a loud "crack" and I'd look up just in time to get a kisser full of tree.
I was also gambling with the life of everybody who walked past. All the kids in the neighborhood.
So we took it out Monday. I surprised my wife with how calmly I took it, avoiding the hoopla I might have felt compelled to indulge in. No ceremony, no ring of neighbors holding hands, encircling its enormous trunk—10 foot six inches in circumference. No poems, no tears. We did not, as we had considered, have the lumber treated and turned into furniture. That would have made it all somehow worse, by its paltriness, like erecting a sail to try to stop the world from turning. I paused at the top of the stairs Monday morning, took one last look, then headed off to work. I never even said, "Thank you." But then again, trees aren't doing what they do for the thanks. That's just how they are.
My wife tried to put the best spin on it.
"It's dying," she said. "Maybe it's in pain."
Hard to tell. I don't think so. It's not as if you could ask it. Either way, it's not in pain any more.
It helps that last year, I planted an identical sugar maple under our dying giant's dry branches. And I made a point of gathering a half a dozen seedlings that our fading Goliath had thrown off. I'll take these orphan saplings out into various spots and plant them, to give the old guy a new lease on life. That's the lesson nature teaches. Each of us dies, every tree dies too. But trees still go on. Life goes on. The new maple has a century to go, but it'll get there. I won't, but it will. Someone else will mourn its passing.