Magazine | May 19, 2014, Issue

Into the Woods

Every month I get a haircut; every decade my property gets a tree cut. This was a regular feature of old-time husbandry, as reflected in fiction or correspondence where one reads of landowners and their woodlots. In a famous letter, Machiavelli includes tending to his woodlot as part of his daily rural routine, along with hearing the gossip and playing tric-trac; at night he dreamed of ancient Athens and Cesare Borgia. It would be pompous for a weekend gardener with 22 acres to speak of his woodlot, but the trees do need culling from time to time.

The oldest trees on my land are three big maples, in a cleft watered by the seasonal stream. They grew to fullness because there was no other use to which that land could be put. When I bought the property, one had toppled down long ago, its trunk barkless, shattered, rotting. Its fellows each had a circumference of 20 feet. One has since lost a significant branch, almost a half of itself. But every spring its remainder and its companion still put out leaves so high they cannot be identified with the naked eye.

The big maples are too far back from the house and the yard to require attention. It is the closer-in, not-so-old-growth trees that need work. Age takes its toll, even if you haven’t lived a couple of centuries. I have an oak, which came up in a double trunk; one of those trunks has a blackened, hollowed-out base. It could come down any day, wreaking havoc on the carport. It is time, as Al Gore said, for him to go.

A second moribund tree, right out my kitchen window, is a more delicate problem. There is a big hole in its trunk about five feet up. Birds use it as a rest stop and a snack bar; there must be bugs in there, for I have seen the pileated woodpecker, normally the shyest of creatures, perch at the opening in a trance of destruction as he drills away. The shell of the tree still carries a little life up to its top, but its time cannot be long. It would likely fall right on the house, and while it is not stout enough to do structural damage, it would ding the shingles. Some compromise between security and bird-watching must be found.

Other trees fall victim to the weather. Much of my property is not ideal for woods. The soil is both rocky and wet. Roots get a grip, but maybe not the best, and a downpour or a sudden heavy thaw can soften things up. We have had two tropical storms in the last few years, which destroyed state roads and swept away houses. One of the storms uprooted an elm alongside my driveway. Its crown grasped the crowns of its neighbors, who keep it suspended in mid fall, but they all lean at crazy angles like tree-drunks. On the other side of the driveway stood a double-trunked ash. One half of him came down, and was sawed and moved a year ago. But his other half, while healthy, has lost half of his root structure — try standing on one foot for the rest of your life; if he goes he will smash my front gate. A storm also touched one of my sugar maples. He stands at the edge of the yard; the tink-tink of the first sap dropping into an empty pail in February is the promise of resurrection. One of his upper limbs snapped off a year or two ago. This damage is the least serious any of my trees has suffered — the rest of him is quite healthy — but the most undignified. The limb keeled over without making a clean split; the tree looks like a malingering yard worker leaning on a rake. The dripping sap this year seemed to call for attention: think? think?

The local paper is filled with ads for people who will come and take down your trees. Their prices are high — city dwellers are all Bloombergs — and their credentials are self-reported. For this kind of work you need someone who knows what he is doing and who carries his own insurance, but who won’t come in and briskly clear-cut your place. I believe I have struck the balance. The young man who came to mark the victims — patients? — was well recommended. He charges a flat daily fee for him and his crew. He trims from the tops down, and told me proudly he was a recognized tree climber. We talked about the tree with the bird hole, and decided to leave a tall stump: bugs for decades.

When a tree falls, its roots peel back the skin of the world. A patch of soil lifts up into the air, mixed with stones, like chocolate chips. Depending on how wet the ground is, the holes may become vernal pools. Looking at the scar feels intrusive, almost unseemly. You are like a nomad bumbling among the ruins of superior beings. I met a traveler from an antique land who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert.”

Trees that you see week after week are like buildings in your neighborhood. You may not pay them any particular attention, but when they go or change you notice. When I moved to the city, I was two blocks from Lüchow’s, an old German restaurant, as phony as an operetta and as delightful. Every day I saw in the distance the World Trade towers. Third Avenue was lined with short, brick buildings, hanging on as bars from the days of the El. One of the last ones left houses a palm reader; it is girdled in scaffolding.

When the young man and his crew have done their work I will have firewood for a couple of winters. The elm, the oak, and the maple will have to dry out for a year, but ash can be burned right away. Ash to ashes.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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