Ralph Gardner Jr: Not Just Another Tree | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: Not Just Another Tree

Oct 17, 2020

A few months ago I noticed that the large maple in front of our house was looking a bit under the weather. Compared to its cousins the canopy appeared thin and its leaves a lighter shade of green.

Doug Mayer, an arborist, visited and confirmed my fears: the tree was in decline. He explained what needed to be done to extend its life: the maple would need to be pruned and retrenched. The deck surrounding the tree, which probably wasn’t contributing to its longevity, would have to be removed, the soil around the tree, too. Then the maple would have to be examined for root issues, the soil aerated, mixed with compost and backfilled. Holes would then be drilled in a grid pattern and injected with a bio-stimulant.

There’s more. But I don’t want to tempt your patience. Needless to say, such life saving measures don’t come cheap.

If it were any other tree on the property I might forgo the expense. But this one is strategically located directly in front of the house and I know something of its history. I have an undated photograph of the tree probably from the early 1930’s. Back then it appeared little more than a sapling behind the majestic maple it would come to replace. My grandparents removed that tree for reasons lost to the ages but most likely because they feared it threatened the house. That sapling is now almost eight-feet in circumference and more than a hundred years old.

Also, we live in a time of growing consciousness about trees. Evidence keeps mounting that they’re not dumb plants – not that I consider plants dumb – but sentient creatures, members of communities that exchange information through their shared nervous systems and rally to each other’s defenses.

The one thing they can’t protect themselves against is us. Our chainsaws, our sprawling development, our pollution and man-made climate change. So we need to step up and do the right thing.

But the factor that sealed the deal for me was the news that Doug had been maintaining my neighbors’, Martha and Sheldon’s, trees for a quarter century. The couple lives directly through the woods in a meticulously restored 18th century Dutch house surrounded by ancient maples.

I called and asked if I could come over to see them.

Part of the reason things are messed us is that trees are self-effacing and nature can’t lobby on its own behalf -- though I admit it’s been raising its game lately through events such as cataclysmic forest fires, floods and hurricanes. Trees are all too easy to take for granted, to overlook. On previous social visits to Martha and Sheldon’s I’d noticed they had a lovely place but I hadn’t taken the time to appreciate their trees.

I did now. They were magnificent with massive trunks and huge, spreading canopies. But their longevity was also proof of the arborist’s craft. They were artfully pruned and their massive branches secured in place by heavy cables.

Shortly after my visit came that fast-moving October 7th thunderstorm that took down trees and caused power outages. One of the casualties was one of Martha and Sheldon’s primeval maples.

“It’s gone,” Martha reported when I called to offer my condolences. She meant that it had been cut into pieces and hauled away. Some of it was stacked for firewood. “We’re saving some of the lengths to be milled with the thought we might get a table out of it,” Martha told me.

I’d driven by to examine the carnage before it was removed --- Sheldon described the fact that it fell harmlessly along the side of the road rather than on the house as its “final gift.” It was apparent from casual observation that the core of the tree had rotted years ago. Who knows how many decades their arborist’s intervention extended its life? Certainly several.

Martha said it was too rotten to count it rings but she assumes the tree dates back to the house’s construction in the 1780’s. That would make it almost 250 years old.

I asked whether she was thinking of replacing it. She said they were but not with a maple. “You have to plant south or mid-Atlantic trees because of climate change,” she was told. “These trees are on the way out.”

She’s considering a Kentucky coffeetree. It’s a picturesque fast-growing tree that’s resistant to drought and pollution.

The thought that our beloved maples and oaks may be “moving north” to escape the heat, as Martha put it, leaving us behind, is profoundly sad. Saving one maple won’t do much to staunch climate change. But if intervention can extend our tree’s life a few more decades it seems money well spent.

But it’s actually about more than that. It’s also symbolic, if not to the larger world, than to me and the infinitesimal part of it that I temporarily control. Respect is due. Respect must be paid. It’s one small but perhaps crucial step in restoring the balance between us and other living things.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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