Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Family Tree

    It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of Silver Maple, born Acer saccharinum over a half century ago.  It was preceded in death by two partners- pin oak, Quercus palustris, and Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia.  It is survived by many pleasant memories shared by the home’s owner, his four children, eight grandchildren and eight great grandchildren and innumerable birds and squirrels to which it provided food and shelter.  In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Arbor Day Society.

    Is it wrong to have such strong emotional attachments to a tree?  The entire family felt a great loss a couple weeks ago when my father had the old silver maple removed from the back yard.  Once a strong, towering specimen, its main branches had become hollow and split over the past several years, and Dad was afraid a storm would bring its weight crashing down onto either his or the neighbor’s garage. 

    The tree has always been a part of my life and has shared over half of my father‘s nearly 90 years on this earth.  My earliest memory is of a backyard flanked on the west by the maple and on the east by the pin oak.  A little to the north and west of these was the old Chinese elm which stool vigil by the old toy trunk and which littered our pool with its ever shedding small leaves.  The elm was the first to go when I was still a small boy, but the maple and oak continued to frame our yard.  I loved the beautiful red and russet colors of the oak in fall, and the small acorns it would drop each year.  While the maple was wide and branching, the oak stood tall and straight.  However, the oak was never as healthy as it should be, and despite Dad’s best efforts, it continued to decline.  So Dad had it removed some years later.
Both the author and the trees in their infancy.  The elm is on the left with the old toy trunk by its base and the maple is to the right.

    There were many other trees that came in and out of our lives through the years.  At various times there were peach, pear and apple trees.  These dad dug up and transported from a nursery that was going out of business in his hometown of Tuscola, Illinois.  The most I remember from the peach and pear trees was the number of bees they attracted.  I was too young to ever remember a peach from one of those trees, but I do remember sampling some pears, a fruit for which I’ve never developed a taste.  

    But the apple tree remained and became one of my early childhood companions.  Being much smaller than the maple and oak, it was the first tree I was ever able to climb.  It, too, drew bees in the spring, but I had by then learned they were not a threat to me.  In late summer, it started dropping its small green fruit.  This was not a tree to produce large, sweet, red apples.  Rather it produced small green ones that never seemed to fully mature before falling and which were firm and extremely tart.  I loved nibbling on those sour apples, but thankfully never ate enough to succumb to the common intestinal woes of young boys eating too many green apples.   
My son, David, learning to climb in one of my father's fruit trees.

    Our backyard was bordered by a neighbor’s cedar privacy fence, and this became the target for my early pitching practice.  Actually, I never played ball, let alone pitch, so it might be more accurate to say it was the perfect outlet for a young boy’s pent up energy.  As I would find apples, I would step back, take aim at the fence and let them fly.  The goal was to hit with enough force to shatter the green missile into a dozen fragments.  I have no idea what my neighbor thought as he heard the repeated bangs of apples striking his fence from the opposite side, but I sure enjoyed myself.  I was less fond of the apples when fall came and the crop dropped in earnest.  That is when Dad would send me into the yard with a bucket to pick up all the fallen apples before he mowed the lawn.  The benign honey bees of spring had by now been replaced with the more threatening hornets which fed on the fallen fruit to load up on carbohydrates before winter, and although I tolerated the bees, I did not like these hornets.  I also did not like the rotting apples which had turned brown and mushy with a sickly sweet scent.  I would put on a pair of Dad’s oversized gloves and pick-up the apples as quickly as I could before dumping them on the garden to be turned under the soil later.
My son enjoying some of the last days of the tree house.  The old cedar fence was still standing.

    The apple tree was also the site of my one and only tree house.  With a sheet of plywood left over from an earlier go-cart I had built, Dad created a very simple little tree house.  He basically cut off the main leader of the tree and nailed the sheet of wood on top of that, along with some additional bracing and a couple 2 x 4‘s nailed up as railings.  There was no structure other than this simple platform, but that was all I needed.  My friends and I could still climb up and sit together on the tree house to talk and plan out our daily adventures.  One side of it was near an open area of the tree, and from this vantage point we “parachuted” out by grabbing the two by four rail, swinging out from under it and dropping to the ground.  On the other side was a lower branch that was forked.  By climbing down to this branch and walking its length, it would gradually bend and lower itself to the ground.  This we called “the elevator” and thankfully, given our small sizes, it always managed to spring back to its original position.  This tree house saw a second generation of climbers as my nieces and nephews took advantage of it in later years.  

    This was also the tree that stood in as a defensive player in backyard games of basketball.  The old basketball goal was just behind the tree, and in the early years that was not a problem due to the tree’s small size.  But as the years passed and the canopy spread, branches started reaching out to sometimes smack down a shot.  Dad kept most of these pruned, but in games of HORSE, there were always a few shots that involved squatting under the apple tree and shooting between low hanging branches.  This old family friend survived until a few years ago, when it too joined the list of departed trees.

    Another tree which earns special mention was the English walnut tree my dad planted from a walnut collected off his own father’s tree in Illinois.  He nursed the tree along, and after many years it had finally reached a respectable size and was producing its first crop of walnuts. What most intrigued me about the walnut tree was its tendency to lose all of its leaves in a single day when autumn rolled around.  Eating breakfast in the morning I would look out on a tree with a full, yellowed canopy, but when I would return from school that afternoon the tree would be totally bare and the ground hidden by a thick blanket of its compound leaves.  It was a trait I particularly liked once I became of age to help with the annual leaf raking.  Rather than repeating my job day after day, I could rake the whole batch of leaves in a single setting.  However, there was one fatal flaw with Dad’s tree and that was that he had planted it in the part of the yard in which the vegetable garden was located.  The garden had expanded through the years until a large part of it was adjacent to the walnut tree.  The problem with this arrangement was two fold.  First, walnut trees are allelopathic, which means they produce chemicals which inhibit the growth of other plants.  Thankfully, being an English walnut rather than a black walnut, this trait was less pronounced.  What proved more problematic was that the tree left most of the garden in shadow throughout the day and its roots competed for water.  Dad was faced with a difficult decision- relocate the garden or cut down the tree.  There was no other practical spot in the yard for a garden, so with a heavy heart Dad cut down the tree he had grown from his father’s tree.
The author with daughter, Rebecca, and son, David celebrating an old family chair that was moving on.  The maple tree is the backdrop.

    But the constant throughout all these other trees was the old silver maple.  While the apple tree may have been the first tree I was able to climb, the maple was the first tree of significant size that I was able to ascend and explore.  It was not an easy task in those early years.  I would have to get a running start, jump up and put my foot on the trunk for leverage and from there spring up to a large overhead branch.  Once I had grabbed the branch and was hanging freely, I could swing my feet over to the trunk and “walk” up its rough bark until I could latch them over the top of the branch.  Then with great effort and many contortions, I would work my body to the topside of the branch, and from there it was easy to move higher into the tree.  Perched in middle branches, it was my first opportunity to see the world from a bird’s perspective.  The world, and especially the tree, appeared so different from that vantage point.  I felt the urge to take wing and start exploring the loftier parts of the world.  Having finally reached a bird’s eye view of the world, I had hoped to finally explore a bird’s nest up close rather than just glancing up from the ground, but the birds were smart enough to always build in the upper branches beyond my reach.  

    The maple tree was an escape for me.  By the time I had learned to climb this tree, I felt I had outgrown the tree house, so if I wanted a loftier view of the world, it was the maple to which I turned.  There was a large branch that had the perfect angle away from the trunk and which was very stable, so this became my resting spot.  On warm afternoons I would climb to my special branch, lean back and try to nap.  I don’t think I ever actually managed to fall asleep, but I was always very comfortable and relaxed. The tree proved it could serve as a classroom or library, as well.  About the time of 5th or 6th grade, I had decided I would like to learn the Gettysburg Address, so I grabbed my Compton’s Encyclopedia, climbed to my comfy spot, and in that green cathedral with a warm summer breeze rustling the leaves, I memorized the first half of the address.  

    Around this same time, I developed aspirations of living off the land in some forested wild region.  As part of this phase, I became interested in the making of maple syrup.  Nick, the kind old gentleman who lived alone in his small trailer at the lake gave me a spile, the tube that is inserted into a tree to gather the sap, and so I set off to tap our maple.  I realized that ours was not the traditional sugar maple used to make syrup, but having tasted the sweet icicles that formed from cut branches in winter, I knew our tree’s sap contained a fair amount of sugar, as well.  So as the cold days of February gave way to the warming temps of March, I took Dad’s hand brace and drilled the appropriate-sized hole at the correct angle, and inserted the spile.  I then hung an old plastic milk jug and began collecting the rising sap.  It takes 30-40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup, and although I only managed to collect less than one gallon that spring, I still wanted to give it a try.  Dad was a good sport and decided to help me, so one evening he got out a pot and set it on the stove to begin boiling my meager collection.  It boiled and it boiled, constantly reducing in volume and increasing in sweetness, and I waited eagerly for the final product.  However, in the end, things moved sort of quickly, and we temporarily lost focus.  When we again looked at the pot, expecting to see a golden brown syrup, we saw instead a tarry puddle of black goo.  My great maple syrup experiment was a failure, and I never again tapped the old maple tree, but for me the experience was priceless.
The remains of the family maple.  The garden, firewood left from the old apple tree and the aging fireplace are seen in the background.

    Throughout the years family gatherings were often held in the shade of the old maple.  Many games of croquet were played in its shadow.  In fact, a croquet wicket, somehow left on a low hanging limb of the adjacent pin oak and forgotten, had grown into the tree and was trapped forever.  Eventually, Mom and Dad placed a porch swing there where they could sit and gently rock while keeping an eye on food cooking on the outdoor fireplace my father had built nearby.  Many a fish were fried under the canopy of the old silver maple.  Sadly, many of those fires were fueled by the remains of previous trees which had not survived the test of time as had the maple.  Eventually, Dad hung a swing from one of the trees branches, and many grandchildren and, in later years, great grandchildren took advantage of its long, gentle glide.  And just a few days before it was to be felled, Dad celebrated its life once more by putting his youngest great grandchild, Ava, on his lap and going for a final swing.  It was two big kids enjoying themselves in under the tree that had seen so much life.  
Dad with his great granddaughter Ava playing together one last time on the swing.  85 years may separate them in age, but they are both still kids at heart.

    But now there is only a stump.  It measures 46 inches in diameter, and a second slab is laid at its base.  Its surface traces the story of our lives, each ring giving testament to another year of our family history.  If I counted back, I could see the outline of the small sapling that stood when I took my first steps.  Counting further, I could find the year the tree withstood the great blizzard of ’78.  And just a couple more rings out I would again see the tree as it was when I left home to attend college, never again to climb its branches.   Those branches no longer spread wide to embrace our family as they did for half a century.  No, a great friend is gone, but it is not forgotten nor is it lost to the youngest of our family.  While they can no longer scale its heights, my father had the tree cut flat and smooth a couple feet off the ground.  It is now meant to be a stage for the great grandchildren, a place where they too can dream of their futures much as I did laying back on my perch many years ago.  I am happy that he did this, because this tree has been too much a part of our history to just vanish from sight.  Our old friend sits transformed, but its foundation remains, and it is still very much a part of our lives.


  1. Nicely written my friend. Touched me.

  2. Beautiful words as usual, and I love your son in his red dungarees!
    I have never lived anywhere long enough to have a really mature tree, definitely not one planted and seen into maturity. I have some young ones here, but won't live to see them mature to a good age, and no doubt the next inhabitants of 'our' garden will cut them down anyway! But we had to remove a willow planted by previous owners of this old house - they planted a willow and a silver birch within two feet of each other can you believe?! The birch I love for its trunk and foliage prettier than willow, so the latter went. I miss it. But I'd have missed the birch more I think.