A few days ago I had to have a tree removed on my property. It was a truly majestic specimen, towering over anything else near. In a lot populated by numerous mature oaks it stood off on it's own at the edge of a meadow space, not far from the property boundary. For years far exceeding my own memory this sylvan giant had dominated the southeast horizon.
When I had moved here fifteen years ago much of this corner of ground had been long neglected. I don't describe it this way as a negative. It had simply been left to exist as nature would have it. It was neglected in the sense that the area was heavily overgrown with thick brush and many downed limbs, some of those quite large. It made a fine habitat for the many creatures that share this space as home. It was never my intention to radically alter this landscape, just tidy it up a bit. I wanted to regain some measure of control over the space to reduce a breeding ground for ticks and mosquitoes so near to the house. I cleaned up a walking path from the small grove on the immediate rear of the house through the meadow to a spot in the shadow of that giant where it linked to natural deer trails in the wood beyond.
I have since made it a practice to bush hog this space once or twice a year and I have kept the path mowed regularly to maintain it. In the process of tailoring this space I got my first up close encounter with the tree. I do much of the maintenance of the property on my own, but on occasion find the job that exceeds my abilities or that of the tools I have to work with. Where this pertains to trees I have called upon the talents of a local arborist. In my first close inspection of this tree I noted a number of rather large dead limbs and some sizable hollows throughout. I also had reason to suspect some infestation of carpenter ants. As there were some other candidates for the arborist's service I made the call and invited them to come have a walk through with me and write up a proposal.
The man who owned this tree service was well studied in the science of silviculture with over twenty years of service in the state forest service before starting the business. When we came to this tree, the finale of the tour, he was in awe of it. " Ah, prunus serotina " he muttered as he walked about its massive trunk and appraised it for the first time. He made some inspection of the bark and of the soil surrounding the base and then stepped back to walk around it again from a greater distance, craning his neck skyward to study its wide reaching boughs and nodding appreciatively as he went. There was one very thick arm which proceeded from the trunk towards the south, which if planted into the ground would have made for a sizable tree in it's own right. It had made its path away from the trunk at the height of 7' or so from the ground and extended another 40' beyond in it's reach for the southern sky. It was in this arm that one of the large hollows was easily observable and close enough to the ground to allow for closer inspection. He reached up into the hollow, large enough he could have put his head into it, and extracted a handful of a dark and musty humus. He only gave a cursory examination of this and let it filter through his fingers to the ground.
"This a wild cherry tree, or a black cherry as sometimes called. There are a good number of them around the Great Lakes region, more the further north you go. I got to say, Mister, this is the biggest damn wild cherry I've ever seen. They get so heavy that they'll usually topple or split apart before they get this big."
I listened with great interest and then had to ask, " How old do you think this tree is?" Without hesitation he turned to me and replied, " This monster is 300 years old if it's a day. I'd stake my left nut on it." I knew it had to be old, but I wouldn't have guessed that old. I'd been thinking something more like maybe 175. He went on to tell me that it topped at about 110' by his best reckoning and had probably stopped bearing fruit a few years after Indiana gained it's statehood. He then added, " I saw you have another little one up front there on your entry lane. That probably came from some bird dropped a seed off of the mama tree here."
I took all this in and pondered the implications. Saint Joseph county was the heart of the Miami nation before the arrival of Europeans, the first of which was LaSalle in 1679. It was a bit of a reach maybe, but it could have been possible that the mammoth which stood before us on that day was a mere sapling at that time. It could only have begun to bear it's first fruit twenty years before the French and Indian Wars. For our European audience this was the North American theater of your Seven Years War. By the time American colonials had begun to venture this far west the tree would have been in the prime of it's fruit bearing years. Perhaps some seeds from this very tree had been used to cultivate the strain of cherries in the expansive orchards of the Grand Traverse peninsula four hours to our north, from which I have sampled their wines. The arborist was looking to conclude, though he did patiently indulge my contemplations before making some sign that he was prepared to turn back.
"Well what do you recommend we do with this one?", I asked him. I think he already had an idea, but he turned to give the tree one more look up and down as he offered his answer.
" I think we'd want to shear off this one arm here. The rots pretty bad and if we don't it won't be long before it splits off on it's own. Theres some other dead wood up in there ought to be trimmed out and lightening some of those bigger limbs up high would protect it against storm damage. With most of the weather coming off the lake from the northwest its pretty exposed here."
I told him I'd go ahead and have done whatever he recommended and to go ahead and write up his proposal and get back to me. He responded within a couple of days and we scheduled the work for early October, just as the leaves began to turn for the season. I was away in Wisconsin on business at the time of their work and returned home the following week to be very pleased with what they had done. His crew had been very thorough and meticulously removed any debris resulting from their efforts. About a week later I received the invoice in the mail and a brief hand written note from the owner was enclosed with it. In this note he advised that during their work on the cherry tree they had discovered that much of the rot which we had observed was found to have already spread well down into the trunk. Although the upper reaches of the tree were still thriving the tree, as a whole, was living on borrowed time; the trunk a mere shell. He concluded by suggesting they come back in the spring to remove the rest. That was in 2003.
I didn't brood over it, but I did spend some time over that winter considering this advice as well as giving further thought to the history of that tree. By the time spring rolled around I had made my decision. In mid April I contacted the arborist and told him I had decided to just leave well enough alone. If the trunk was a shell then the tree was beyond saving, but if the work done could serve to give it a few more years standing then that was as good as we could do. It had managed to hold on this long. The rest of its days would be determined by nature and nature alone.
The owner of the tree service has since passed away, though it is still operated by one of his sons. After another 13 years holding watch over the meadow the mighty cherry succumbed to age and gravity sometime last Friday. I discovered this late in the afternoon and phoned the tree service. This was a job too big for me to tackle on my own. Too my surprise I found that they would be able to come and clean it all up as early as Tuesday. It was a hot, humid day here on Tuesday with heat indexes climbing into the mid nineties. They arrived early to get as much done as they could in the cooler morning hours. With a crew of four and all the right equipment they were able to make surprisingly short work of it. The smaller limbs from up high and the leafy branches were fed into the wood chipper. The larger circumference pieces were hewn into sections that were manageable for their bobcat and loaded onto a flatbed trailer. I was told that these would be sold off and most likely made into furniture. The rotted portions were collected and massed into a mound. I will till this into my garden soil at the end of the season. The rest was cut into manageable sections and added to an existing woodpile. Its very solid wood and old enough that it will require little seasoning. This fall I will split this into firewood which will be used all winter long in my fireplace. I'm sure it will smell sweet. I have a neighbor who is an older fellow who has some difficulty getting around so I will be delivering a fair portion of this wood to him for his wood stove. Together we shall mightily stomp the terra with our carbon footprint and stay the winter chill.
As the crew was completing their clean up the foreman came over and asked me if I would want the stump ground. Doing this for a tree of such magnitude would entail a rather large crater. I thought about it for a minute and then told the young man I would come out with him to take a look at it. The sky was empty. I looked down at the ground where it stood for all those years and marveled at the remnant. Here was the marker of what had stood, 9' across and nearly 30' in circumference. " No", I told the foreman, " leave it. It belongs here." It was done. I had to prepare for a trip back to Ohio for a few days.
On the road yesterday I pondered that tree and the state of things. Many remarkable things occurred in the life of that tree, but the tree never moved. It was fixed there and if it indeed "knew" anything that was limited to the passing of seasons within its own space. It was small once, but it was of good stock. It was in the right place at the right time to grow to it's towering heights. For years it appeared as an imposing presence over that meadow, the breadth of its many boughs spreading and waving over the ground below. It grew ever larger and from afar appeared solid. From afar it looked alive and healthy, a regal profile amid it's smaller peers. But the tree was dying, rotting at its core within. For all of it's vibrant display in the breezes against the backdrop of a big sky it was slowly crumbling until it could no longer stand. Now it will feed the earth. Or be someones desk. Or warm an old man's bones through the long winter months. No longer the sum of it's parts but with a legacy just the same. And I expect that stump will remain there long after I have passed from this realm. There is something a bit haunting about the tale of this tree. It's history and it's fate seem somehow familiar to some other tale I've heard. Or maybe it is one yet to be written.