Until we moved into the city six years ago, I spent most of my life ignoring trees. People were more interesting, although I have met some people who are as dull as a tree. For most of my life I could afford to dismiss trees as the slow, silent, and sleepy side of nature. Aside from a handful of the most common trees, I couldn’t remember tree names or what made one tree different from the others.
Six years ago when we moved to this house in the urban neighborhood of Clifton near our work at the University of Cincinnati, part of the attraction was that the house was surrounded by trees. It sits at the end of a short lane on a small clearing that on three sides drops off steeply into ravines. The trees that surround this three-story house are two and three times the height of the house. I knew enough then to recognize the oaks and two large beeches, and deeper in the ravines the bone-like branches of three big white sycamores. The rest were an anonymous blur.
The first lesson I woke up to was that trees mean leaves. And more leaves. And more leaves. Around our house raking is no longer a fall sport. We rake year round. In the ten beds of ground cover scattered around our front yard, it took me several years to rake off the matted brown carpet of leaves that had accumulated over the years of our former owner having more urgent things to do, like raise four kids on her own. Our son finally introduced me to the wonders of a leaf blower, which I had assumed was only for people too lazy to lift a rake. No, it takes a leaf blower to blast out rot-blackened wads of leaves from the tangles of ground cover.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving this year brought us a ripping cold wind that kept us inside and stripped the last of the oak leaves from their branches, leaving all our surrounding trees naked, except for the two silver beeches which still stubbornly held on to their leaves on the lower half of the branches. On that calmer Thanksgiving day after the wind storm, our yard had again turned brown with the leaf fall, but I felt more confident this time blowing and raking up three tarpfuls, then hauling them to my slash pile by the fence corner half way down the ravine—more confident this time than the other three or four times I’ve played this game this fall that this would be my last round, at least for this season, at least for the lawn. I could spend the winter clearing out the ten beds of ground cover.
The second lesson I woke up to about trees was that, just like people, if you don’t pay attention to them they can hurt you. One quiet October evening a couple of years after we moved in, our son and daughter-in-law left our house around 10:30, got in their car, and drove home. Sometime in the next hour a loud crash disturbed me briefly from sleep, but in the darkness and the quiet that followed I could make nothing of it. The next morning I found the road to our house buried under the full spread of an enormous oak tree that had dropped squarely across where our visitors park cars, smashing the fence and the street light on the near side, stretching across the road to the fire hydrant on the far side. How do you thank a tree for sparing your children? That fire hydrant earned us the attention of the city fire department, who called in the urban forestry division to cut and chew up enough of the top of the tree to allow a fire truck access to the hydrant. Then they wished us good luck with the rest.
The urban forester who came the next day told me this was a black oak that had rotted at the roots. The leaves and branches looked healthy, but enough of the roots had rotted by a white fungus that it could no longer balance its weight. What about all these other giants towering over our street? How many were about to fall? Hard to tell he said, but best to get them looked at. I realized I didn’t know enough about our nearest and tallest neighbors.
A tree map composed by the Davey Tree Company eventually told us that in the woods surrounding our house we have 144 trees that are eight inches in diameter or larger and 44 different species. We learned that in one ravine we have 57 sugar maples in case we ever need to boil sap, and the four towering oaks that flank our mailbox and the walk to our house are black oaks, just like the one whose long trunk still lies like a beached whale in the ravine where it fell four years ago. The roots of the standing oaks look okay for now, but what’s going on underneath?
Two red dots on the map identified our top priorities, an ash on the east side of the house overhanging the deck by our kitchen and a black locust on the west side that had a large shelf fungus growing about 30 feet off the ground, making the locust likely to snap in a west wind and drop its crown on our roof. Then I learned that cutting down a huge tree is the cheaper part of the job. More expensive is paying the pros to cut it up and haul it away. Since both trees fell deep into the ravines, I decided to save some cash and do the cutting and hauling myself. That’s how I learned why ash and locust are called hardwoods. They can blunt a decent chainsaw blade in an afternoon. What would have taken the pros one afternoon took me a good year of afternoons trimming, chainsawing, splitting, stacking, and hauling. I learned enough from a year with those two trees on the slopes of our ravines that next time I might pay those pros to finish the job.
I’ve tried to imagine our house without all these trees. Nice house, no raking–but naked, and no magic. The serenity of our front yard depends totally on the arc of the trees on three sides forming a cathedral of branches—equally magical for a yard party or sitting alone on the bench. What draws the kids from our street is the rope swing that hangs 42 feet from a limb on one of the black oaks near the mailbox. And the hammock that hangs between the blue spruce and the Japanese maple held seven of the kids at once many times this summer. Without trees would the cookies in our pantry be enough to fetch them to our kitchen door? So with their future in mind in the ground cover beds around our yard over the last few years I’ve planted seven waist-high trees, hoping some day they may flower: a lilac, two dogwoods, a serviceberry, a hawthorn, and two hibiscus.
After visiting us last summer, our sixteen year old cousin JP, who lives in a desert suburb of Santa Fe where no tree stands taller than a house, sent me a book by Peter Wohlleben called The Hidden Lives of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World (2015). It’s a series of essays by a German forester that woke me up to the fact that trees are social creatures that communicate with each other, both by pheromones and by their underground network of fungal mycelia. The book made trees seem less slow, silent, and sleepy.
Then last week our local theater offered a showing of the new documentary Fantastic Fungi, featuring Paul Stamet, the guru of psilocybin mushrooms, teaching us about the subterranean kingdom of the mycelium network, the trees’ internet. And this week I noticed on the desk of my college roommate, who is an expert in horticulture, David Haskell’s book The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (2017). Trees are great connectors? Seeing that book on his desk from two years ago left me with the deflating realization that what I had fancied to be my growing discovery had in fact been well established in the common wisdom. It’s now hip to think of trees as part of our eco-culture of communications. I am once again late to the awakening. Why should we be surprised, once we admit our tree-dwelling ancestors, that our social life still so much prefers to take place in the company of trees?
Since I semi-retired a couple of years ago, I’ve been wondering what my community might do with me as my faculties dwindle. When I was younger I had no patience for trees. But now that I have fewer responsibilities, I’ve found a curiosity about trees that might keep me going in the commune of our neighborhood, which is all younger families. Maybe if I study hard for the next decade they’ll let me play the keeper of trees. It might be just right for a slow and sleepy old guy.