November 20, 2021
Robert, my lovely 95-year-old neighbor, told me a few weeks ago that the oak tree on his property along our shared driveway was going to come down. Its two trunks, you see, are bowing over the driveway, bending lower and lower with the passage of time, reaching for light. It’s a hazard, apparently, for trucks: dump trucks pouring gravel, delivery trucks, utility trucks, emergency vehicles; even orange SUVs when the branches are laden with snow. To say nothing of the damage it would do if, weighted with snow or ice, it suddenly completed its journey to the ground.
Then he told me my father planted it.
This old property holds so much history, much of it in trees. And Robert holds the history of it after I left home. He told me this week, as we stood examining the pile of firewood that used to be an oak tree, that the boards for the new fence around my meadow were cut from a tree that fell behind the barn. The new fence my father died of a heart attack while building with his grandson twenty-six years ago.
My parents built the house in 1960 after my father climbed a big leaf maple and saw the view of the valley and Mt. St. Helens. “This is it,” he’s said to have declared.
That maple tree grew above the roof line over the years, and my sisters and I raked the enormous ten-inch leaves each autumn. Acer macrophyllum, it’s “the king of the northwest woodland,” I read on Google. They grow faster than the conifers, but die sooner, leaving the conifers to triumph in the end. And because of their fast growth, they can be brittle and break when exposed to much wind. They fall in the forest by the house every winter, sometimes breaking out, sometimes toppling from the root ball.
My family loved that tree. Although there is another beside the house and one below at the edge of the property, it was the one that inspired the purchase of the land that had our heart. Its double trunks were cabled together to keep it from splitting, to keep it with us as long as possible. I climbed it to hide in its foliage and read undisturbed. It was home to flying squirrels that my dad fed, keeping the hand-crafted log feeder stocked with peanut butter via his ingenious pulley system.
My mother finally was forced to have it removed several years ago when it was mostly diseased and dying, and too close to the house for comfort. I had a dead one removed in meadow after my move back here. The two visible from my living room have many dead limbs. I am just trusting when the branches break out of the one hugging the house, they will fall down hill.
The maple trees are older than I am, but my father planted oak and birch and dogwood and apple trees. And a magnolia for my southern mother, that has one bloom a year. And three noble firs by the driveway that he worried about one December because they were perfect Christmas trees for poachers.
The unidentified tree my father planted at the edge of the meadow is thriving after I cut down the pin oak next to it that grew horizontal, seeking light, like the driveway oak, and crowding the mystery tree. It was growing lopsided and straight out from the top. Cutting out the scraggly leader encouraged sideways growth, and it’s filling in nicely.
He planted Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii, one of the few Latin names I know, and that it’s not a true fir—or pine, spruce, or hemlock—but really fun to say) at the end of the meadow, what used to be a horse pasture. A whole grove of them. And then he left the earth and they had to fend for themselves without him here to manage them: too close together, not enough light, not enough root. In her 80s and 90s, my mother attended to the trees near the house, but couldn’t pay attention to everything. I had forty of them cut out, but still they die and fall over in the winter, or I push them over.
I see now, writing this, I am following in my mother’s steps after her beloved died and left her to it, managing the trees for good health, theirs and mine. I hope both of them would be proud that I’m doing my best to carry on the tree-loving legacy they left behind.
I heard the chainsaw the morning the oak was removed and walked up to watch. I didn’t think I would be sad, but as the branches were lowered to the ground and fed to the voracious chipper, my heart hurt, thinking of my father and his love of trees. Missing him. The endless march of time. No going back. I stood in the rain and shed some tears.
Trees come and go. The oak was next to a cherry tree my younger self plucked from when walking out the driveway. Long gone. The cherry was at the edge of what was, back then, our neighbor’s horse pasture and is now full of huge trees. The land adjacent to this property was clearcut some thirty years ago. I know it broke my mother’s heart, I don’t know how she survived it. She put her grief into action and led a campaign to save the rest of the trees on the hill, resulting in Seminary Hill Natural Area, preserved in perpetuity. And the clearcut area? The trees are back; not the huge conifers, but it’s my favorite place to walk.
Had my parents not kept this property until they too left the earth, had I not returned here, I would not be witness to this history, this passage of time. I age and change, and so does the earth. We help one another stay healthy, until there is no more helping and we pass on to another realm, the dead trees nurturing new growth, the dead humans leaving their mark—hopefully for good—on the next generations.