By Michael Leach
The mention of Arbor Day brings visions of shovels, holes and little sticks with balls of soil at their bases.
Trees are planted for many reasons. But they do more than provide lumber or counter climate change by reducing atmospheric carbon and the heat island effect. They also offer food and shelter to birds and a host of other animals. Sometimes trees become part of local history, childhood memories, voices in the wind or heirlooms. This is the story of five sugar maples.
Perhaps it was Arbor Day in 1912 when the spindly plants were dug from a woods less than a mile from the front lawn of a small Victorian farm house, which was a mere 22 years old. Four of them were transplanted along the country road, the fifth near the house.
The Titanic sank in 1912. It was two years before the start of the butchery of World War I, and a decade prior to the publishing of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, Tales of the Jazz Age that helped define the 1920s.
Frivolity and bathtub gin gave way to the Great Depression decade. In 1939 The Wizard of Oz was released to sing and dance its way into the fabric of American life. Then came the horrors of World War II.
By late1952 the first hydrogen bomb was tested, prosperity raged in America. Tiny-screen televisions mesmerized millions with their black-and-white images. The road in front the now dilapidated frame house was no longer rutted dirt, but shiny black asphalt. The maples, meanwhile, had grown and thrived.
Their tops were well above the story-and-a-half house, when two small children, a girl and boy, moved there in 1952. With their mother’s help, they quickly learned to climb a fat-branched apple tree. After a year or so, they were tall enough to scale the nearby sugar maple. It was the tallest and closest to the house. Their mother was ok with them climbing trees, but not playing near the road, which carried more cars every year.
Fast forward another half century. Space travel was ho-hum, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan underway and the little girl’s children were graduating from college. They had grown up far away and had few chances to climb trees, certainly none like the maples. The traffic on the road was almost constant. Semi trucks increasingly rumbled by, hundreds of motorcycles growled on balmy weekends of spring and autumn. The woods where the trees sprouted became a housing tract and only a few gnarly giants remained.
It was about this time the maples began receiving regular visits from an arborist, because they are not good street trees. Corrective pruning, cabling to help them weather storms, and regular fertilizing became standard care. Despite the remnant of a hurricane, ice storms, droughts and deluges, the trees continued to grow, but less vigorously. Yet their autumn show of golden leaves rivaled the effects of peacocks when it came to dropping jaws.
The trees continued filling their various roles, plus they shaded pedestrians and a swath of pavement. They were a source of free mulch when those glorious leaves fell.
About five years ago the tallest and most beloved maple was diagnosed with a rotten center. It was a threat to the nearby house and the front porch, where the children’s mother had come out to look up into the dense, green cloud and shout, “Kids, supper’s ready. Come on in.”
All those years disappeared in three hours. Only scattered sawdust and a smooth, flat shelf of wood at ground level remained. Last fall, the second of the “hospice” maples, as the arborist described them, was cut down. During its last three or four years, this tree displayed ominous signs: little if any new growth, early coloration and leaf loss in fall, and a shower of dead branches and twigs after every wind storm.
Because the maples are profligates when it comes to seeds, a few sprouted and quickly grew in the landscape beds. The next generation was well underway when the boy, following in the footsteps of his great uncles, transplanted a spindly maple to mark his college graduation in 1970. Every autumn it puts on a show and then carpets the ground with brilliant leaves.
No wonder some wise people created Arbor Day to celebrate and plant trees.