Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Maple Tree

It's an obstacle now, an inconvenient thing. Roots up, where they shouldn't be, drying out in a block of dirt. Trunk cut into chunks. Six days ago, it was an upright tree. Now it's a lying-down stump.

It isn't only our tree that is lying down. Around a hundred trees in East Arlington got uprooted or struck down in the space of five minutes. Dozens in our neighborhood. The reason was a microburst. It doesn't sound like much--a small sneeze, maybe. But it's a scary phenomenon. A storm cell, humidor for agitated air, gets an updraft of evaporated rain, hurls down a ton of wind with frightening force, and it hits the ground like insane commandos, spreading out and securing the perimeter with unfortunate collateral damage.  Just air doing what air does under certain conditions.

The rain started pelting down while I was getting in my car in the Stop and Shop parking lot. By the time I made my way out into Massachusetts Avenue, it had turned into something else—white, oceanic, sociopathic. I drove through it slowly, wipers on Bejesus speed. But the tyranny was brief. When Carol called I was  past the firehouse and the wipers were down to Holy Moley. You're going to find a surprise when you get home, she said.

Around a hundred trees. One of them lay across Mass. Ave just past where I made my turn onto Adams. But that tree was a nameless tree. This was our tree. It had fallen at a house-sparing angle, heroically. Its entire bolus of roots entangled in a sidewalk-shaped slab of dirt, as if it had fallen over, trying to escape.

There's trees--generally---and there's trees you're acquainted with, like the neighbor's stately pear trees that lean into our yard; they're likable enough. But certain trees matter for mysterious reasons. The maple tree mattered from both outside and inside the house. Coming home, it was the home guard, the giant who wouldn't leave. Mostly you took it for granted, but you eventually had to reckon with it: step in its leaves, see the moon through it, peer up at a chiding squirrel in it, and worry about it sometimes, when some unhealthy tree in the neighborhood got marked with a white X, then vanished. That's when the maple became our tree, even though I knew it was the town's tree: its crown reverse-mohawked to let the cables go through, its roots gnarled deep in the earth on the other side of the sidewalk. But whose tree was it, really, if not ours?

From inside the house, the maple tree mattered even more to me. It's good to have a tree outside your window, especially in the room where you write, especially when you write about nature. Often when I was stuck for something to write about, I wrote about the tree. Just a description, maybe the screen of green and the play of leaf shadows and sunlight on summer afternoons. Or in November, when there were only a few tough clingers left, and then none, just bare branches. Cold branches. Wet branches. Snow-lined branches. And then, eventually, a stippling of buds, lime-green florets, new leaves, propeller seeds. All this viewed through a year of glances out the window. Small certainties: leaves, branches, wind, the occasional bird and squirrel. A cheap sufficiency of Nature for the housebound. What do you have for me today, tree?


Well, I don't want to get all Joyce Kilmer here. Improbability occasionally wins a hand over certainty, we know that. The tree--what was left of it--is gone now. The DPW guys came and took the inconvenient stump away, wood-chipped it, whatever. I saved a root, a twig, a small wedge of wood. But the parts don't really stand for the whole, any more than one tree can stand for Nature.

Anyway, I counted the tree's rings before they took it away: around thirty. So if we plant another maple, say this fall, in thirty years I'll be 94, probably even talking to trees: "I ever tell you about's the damn thing... predecesssor, that's it. Maple tree. Looked a lot like you!... which reminds me. I ever tell you about the Microburst of Twenty Twelve?"

1 comment:

  1. I'm so sorry about your tree, Hal. We had a similar experience on July 4, 2005. I was out for a bike ride, as the day was beautiful, and then out of nowhere I saw this crazy storm on the horizon. As I pedaled like mad to get back to the house, Mark headed out to the car to try to come and find me. Only he couldn't come because a huge branch from a large tree in our backyard (Siberian elm -- the branch itself was the size of a tree) had crashed onto his car, taking an electrical line with it. The storm was over fairly quickly, and we found out later that it was a microburst. It was memorable. (And, no, we didn't make it to the Fourth of July parade that year!)