Trees are kind of like people for me – – -ok, maybe more like a beloved pet than an actual person. Like people, there are all kinds of trees to love. Some trees bear fruit, others nuts, and others only their own seed. Some trees provide food for birds, others a home to animals. Some trees provide shade, others offer protection from wind. Some trees usher in spring with their dainty, perfumed blooms, while others paint up a fabulous fall. Some trees make up the canopy, and others the understory. Some are rough and messy, where others are smooth and refined.
If you listen carefully, trees are the teller of tales.
“Trees, for example, carry the memory of rainfall. In their rings we read ancient weather—storms, sunlight, and temperatures, the growing seasons of centuries. A forest shares a history, which each tree remembers even after it has been felled.”
– Anne Michaels
The giant maple stood on the northeast corner of our lot. It offered a slight buffer from the highway that runs in front of our house. This grand old tree greeted me every morning as I left for work. As I head out the north door I always turn to the east – to catch a glimpse of the sunrise (or the hope of a sunrise), and this maple was always part of my morning view.
The first owner of our property bought it in 1853 – originally part of a much larger plot of farm land. At the time, Iowa was a vast prairie – choked by thick, tall grass. With the exception of a few small groves scattered throughout the county, the only trees to be found were near rivers and streams. Our local tree guy told me that, in early days, many of the settlers would go down to the river bottom, dig up saplings and take them back home to plant. We live in the Raccoon River Valley, along the leg known as the “Middle Coon”. The river would have been the closest source of trees for transplanting at that time.
The north side of our yard was once lined by maples, probably planted as part of the original windbreak when the first home was built (sometime between 1875 and 1900). I have no idea exactly when, or how many trees were planted, but when we moved in nearly 5 years ago, there were four or five looming maples that still stood. After 120 years (give or take), they had grown both quite large and quite hollow. One by one they have fallen – either by wind, or taken down intentionally for our own safety. By the summer of 2017, only two of the old trees remained.
Our big guy on the northeast corner was the hub of activity in our yard. It’s where the squirrels made their home. It was in a prime location – near a large black walnut and safely out of reach of Duke, our dog. It had a dead spot (or two) up at the very top that made the perfect perch for the hawk or turkey vulture that hunted the adjacent farm field with each spring thaw. In the early morning hours, an occasional owl called out from the tree. It was the favorite drum of a redheaded woodpecker. Two summers ago we had a pair of wood ducks nesting and raising a brood in that tree, and my husband witnessed the exodus of the ducklings as they made their way towards Bays Branch.
Imagine everything the tree had witnessed! Did it see the owner break prairie? Kids walking to the one room school house that used to sit just down the road? When the road was built, then graveled, then paved as travel changed from horse to auto? When the first telephone and electric poles were erected? When the windmill ran the pump for the well in the back of the yard? When the privy replaced by indoor plumbing, and the installation of the septic system? Yes! It had witnessed it all and much more.
I loved this tree so much. I took a lot of pictures of it. A ton of pictures. As if it were my own child. Below is a picture of the fine fellow on tree trimming day a couple years ago (we had to cut down the maple right next to it on the left):
We tried to save the tree as long as we could. We trimmed it a couple of times, and checked on it regularly during our evening rounds. This last summer, we noticed a large crack down the middle of the trunk. We knew the trunk was hollow, and quite a bit of the top was too. Sadly, it was time to say goodbye to our beloved old friend.
On December 17, we took the tree down.
We now have one, very hollow maple left in the north side yard. This past summer, it was the 2nd favorite drum of a redheaded woodpecker, and the home to a family of raccoons which I think have left. Hopefully the squirrels have found it a suitable home for the rest of the winter.