Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Goodbye old tree.


    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.




23 comments:

  1. Not many trees deserve or get such a nice obituary.

    I wish I could write one for the hideous tree disfiguring our back yard, but it's of the undead variety. Even decapitated, it sprouts greenery in defiance of our attempts to kill it, sucking energy out of the soil and spoiling my wife's pepper garden. It surely will survive me. As you say, life goes on.

    john

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    1. Why not cut it down then and plant a young tree?

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  2. Some suburbs are lovely and peaceful.

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  3. Must be a lot of leaf raking. We are in a newer, cookie cutter subdivision of a suburb. Younger or fewer trees. At our old place we had to worry about gutter cleaning hassles. Not here.

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  4. Beautifully written. I can almost imagine the view from the porch.

    But one must be practical.

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  5. What a lovely eulogy to your tree. It was absolutely beautiful and I hope you always have fond memories of it.

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  6. I once had four stately elms lining my front yard. Then came the Dutch Elm Beetle. Trees all gone, but now unlamented as they have been replaced with a large honey locust, whose finely configured leaves require little raking and permit what an arboreal guide dubs "dappled sunlight" to fall on what once was unadorned dirt but is now verdant green. One door closes. Another opens.

    Don't know if we're still doing puns and other wordplay, but Neil's heartfelt tribute to his old friend might have been alternatively titled "Sic Transit Arborea."

    Tom Evans

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  7. Just wonderful stuff, NS. Sorry about the tree. I've never had a relationship with a tree like that, but in your position, I believe I would have. I'm assuming, since you were off last week, that you could have arranged for them to come when you'd have been there for the procedure, but chose not to?

    "No poems, no tears." This prose tribute is surely as compelling as a poem might be. And your EGD photos are almost always apt, but the selection accompanying this piece is brilliant. They come close to telling the story by themselves. The tire lying on the ground is poignant, indeed.

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  8. When a tree as magnificent as yours dies, it's like a death in the family. Up and down the block where my wife Sarah and I live in La Grange, there are still a few of those magnificent elms left standing--long-time survivors of Dutch-elm disease. One is so massive at its base, the sidewalk had to be custom curved around it. When these trees are gone in probably only a few more years, I'll really miss them. But neighborhoods are like people and trees, or so I imagine--alive and even conscious in their own right, always moving forward from one generation to the next.

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    1. We used to live near LaGrange, lovely historical homes there as in Oak Park. But those homes are a lot of upkeep and renovation needed. A pal of mine bought one in Brookfield, all the heating, plumbing system, insulation had to be redone, not up to code, termite probs, etc., windows had to be redone. Those homes are nice to look at but wouldn't want to own them.

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    2. Well said, anon at 1:20.

      Oak Park has some huge trees as well and Lockport in the SW burbs has some stately late 19th century homes.

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  9. I feel for you, Neil, but at least you were reasonable about it.

    My boyhood home was flanked by a couple of evergreens that got bigger and uglier every year. My mom hated them, but my father put his foot down and wouldn't hear of having them removed. After he passed, before he was cold in the ground, they were gone.

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  10. I empathize as well. Our house is a similar age and style, but our magnificent tree was in the back yard. When it was taken down, they had to remove it by passing parts of it over the house. To add insult to injury, in the process the tree company mutilated a magnolia tree in our front yard. It had to be trimmed way, way down, and for years it was pretty barren. But it has rejuvenated over time and blossoms beautifully in the spring again.

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    1. The timing of this must feel particularly poignant for you, with your youngest leaving the nest soon.

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    2. It does. He's going to Europe tomorrow.

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  11. My wife and I lost close to fifty mature trees to a tornado on April 9th.
    We also lost our house, barn, garage, a couple of vehicles . . .
    The trees will be the hardest to replace.

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  12. how terrible, Mr. Novotny-glad you and your family were okay

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  13. Not as sappy as I thought it would be. The story just continued to grow on me.

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    Replies
    1. Beware of Pun Week!

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    2. I can't believe yew went there.

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  14. This was a nice post, not aspen too much of the reader. Just pining away as one would for a deceased alder relative. Sorry, I'll kick myself in the ash for this one.

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  15. what a clever bunch here

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  16. Beautiful and so sad. We have a large place with a lot of trees but there are a few that are special to me. One or two trees die every year and I always worry about my favorites.

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