If A Tree Falls …

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A tree falls for no apparent reason. It might have stood for 70 years and then, on a dead quiet, airless summer evening, it just crumbles to the ground with a thunderous boom, or in complete silence, as it gently eases to the ground or maybe impacts a garage, a car or an electrical transformer.Then there are times when a gale gets up, and you lie awake listening to tree limbs snap with sickening regularity. There is the time when you hear nothing but wind and rain, when these awesome elements not only devour trees but smother the sound of their demise. And there is the silent, wet snow or ice in winter that achingly bends branches to the ground and snaps the mightiest of majestic limbs.

Years ago a house was destroyed when a large old tree fell on it, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage. It was a sunny, warm day and there was virtually no wind. The maple tree must have been more than 80 years old and no one had any clue what was about to happen. The tree was a provider of shade for the home and gardens below, and in its lifetime doubtless it was home to numerous birds and other animals.

Then it just fell. Well, it seems there’s more to it than that, as in most cases these things just don’t happen spontaneously. After the fact the tree was carefully examined and it was discovered that carpenter ants had long been at work on the decaying tree’s interior. It was otherwise invisible to onlookers. The tree had been doomed for a while and a professional arborist might have diagnosed the problem years in advance. Ultimately, however, it was one ant who took the last bite that toppled the giant.

Then there was the oak that we saw one night blocking the parkway. A squall had developed in advance of a thunderstorm and without warning this 100-foot-tall oak was ripped from the ground and fell onto the roadway, destroying two cars and stopping traffic for nearly an hour. We don’t know why this tree came down, but based on the way it fell I suspected long-term root damage due to road construction, an earlier drought and then possible salt injury.

There is another phenomenon, known as sudden limb failure, that results in a substantial limb falling from trees such as liquidambar, oak, ash, sycamore, maple and poplar. The limb suddenly, without warning, falls from what appears to be a perfectly healthy tree, and more often than not the failure occurs in July between 1 and 4 in the afternoon. There’s some speculation that the cause is an imbalance between the moisture leaving the foliage and the tree’s ability to replace it quickly enough on hot summer days in July. The result is a very sudden drop in internal support pressure, resulting in the limb collapse.

A stately sugar maple sits in front of my house. Ten years ago, on a calm July day, a third of it just dropped, shaking the entire house. It was planted around 1880, and while it drops pieces in every wind I simply don’t have the heart to cut it down. But its days are certainly numbered, and when it’s fallen or felled I will have a small bit of solace knowing that it will heat my house for several months.

One has to be philosophical. Trees topple in summer thunderstorms and in winter snowfalls. It happens in our yards, along our streets, in our parks ,and, yes, in the depths of the forest and woods. Of course, certain tree species fare far worse in windstorms than others, the three biggest culprits possibly being the silver maple, black locust and Bradford pear (we won’t even go near the weeping willows). All of them are fast growing and all weak wooded.

The silver maple once was placed on a pedestal by great gardeners and designers who had a vision of it much like that of a weeping willow on a large estate close to the water, where there was room to grow and be seen. It could fall to pieces without consequence, and these trees grow in any soil and they grow very fast, so house builders and planners planted them freely in the 1930s. They are now ancient, and when they succumb, the only way is down. There are, however, far more handsome and safer shade trees to select from: the sugar maple, the yellowwood, the hornbeam and the linden, to name a few.

The black locust is big, too, but far less ungainly. Its fissured dark-gray bark is coarse, but its compound leaves are fine and delicate. It is often festooned in wisteria-like, muddy cream garlands of fragrant flowers. Black locusts liberally seed, and most of those now in our urban and suburban forests were planted by nature.

Bradford pears were developed from the Chinese Callery pear and introduced here in the 1950s. By the early 1980s they had become ubiquitous. Their allure was obvious: They are of modest size, free of disease and shaped so perfectly that they appealed to those who crave symmetry in a plant. They bloom early, and leaves remain thick and glossy through the season, turning a fabulous crimson in the fall.

However, they put on 2 or more feet per season when properly cared for and can grow to 40 feet and as much across. Worse, their branch structure is weak and they just seem to fall to pieces in storms. In some areas they have even become an invasive species. Nurseries still do a brisk business in them, though, and landscape designers and architects once used them like crazy, although most now find them passé.

We can do more to improve conditions for trees and to understand their size at maturity, but the most we can do is find better species to plant. Next to the silver maple that had fallen on the Saab, two small Japanese maples, planted as street trees by an enlightened arborist, were unmarked and unbowed. Instead of rising the 30 feet into power lines they were just 12 or 15 feet high, perfect for their setting. And how often have you seen a wonderful specimen planted at street side only to be amputated or disfigured as it is necessarily pruned away from phone, cable and electric lines?

Even if our world were free of the problematic three, we would still face periodic disasters, especially from hurricanes and ice. The problem is not with the trees, it’s with us. Even sound trees are expected to excel in impossible conditions. We plant in sand, in standing water, under heavy foot and motor traffic, in salt spray and unrelenting wind. We build walls next to roots, scar trunks with weed-eaters and lawn mowers and then let untrained hands hack them to pieces.

We live in a land where most of us take our forest for granted, be it urban, suburban or pine barren … that is, until it splinters, burns or gets eaten by caterpillars, bored by beetles or decimated by disease. We shed tears at their rotten cores that can no longer be saved by steel cables, and we are saddened by paltry root systems and ugly splintered limbs. We hate them for falling and leaving our yards exposed, but how we loved them for that screening, privacy and shade.

How many times have we stopped in high summer to look up at the willow, oak or ash that is vast in size, rustling in the breeze? Did we notice the rhythmic herringbone pattern of the leaves of a crabapple tree? Have we ever stopped to smell the slight, bittersweet fragrance of the linden tree in flower?

We live in a world of trees, an island of trees, and East End of trees, and we would do well to pay them more attention. At a practical level that might mean paying more attention to selection, and better planting and after-care, including pruning and at times feeding. The least we can do is look for obvious and hidden beauty when they are alive—and as the Buddhists would say, give them loving kindness. As always, keep growing.

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