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If a Tree Falls ...

Thoughts on the cycle of life while cutting down an old friend.

Don Gayton 25 Nov
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In the grand cycle of garden life, the dying part is always awkward. Plants that have been with us for years, faithful and steady, can weaken and die in a season. Or confidently leaf out in the spring and then suddenly collapse. Sometimes they die from insects or disease or frost, but more often the cause of death is not immediately apparent.  I have a bleeding heart that every year grew more vigorous and was rapidly becoming the centrepiece of a garden bed, when suddenly it dropped back to a few spindly stems. I was alarmed at first, until I reminded myself of the bleeding heart’s native habitat, temporary openings in wet coniferous forests.  I realized this is not a plant that would plan on growing in place for decades at a time. Instead, it would grow rapidly in the few years of full sunlight, and bow out gracefully as waves of shrubs and trees recolonize the forest opening. A massive, congested root crown a foot across, which my bleeding heart has, would never be found in nature. So I should accept its eventual death, or break up the crown into a series of new plants.

Gardens seem to reward hyperactive interventionists as well as the placid Buddhist types, but rarely middle-of-the-road compromisers like myself.

Mysterious decline

Evening is one of my favourite times in the yard. Temperatures drop, and the wars of the day are all done. I can stand with the garden hose, nozzle set to a coarse mist, and bring random comfort. The dog snuffles about, searching for lost balls or nameless mysteries under the mugho pines. It is not a time to think about death, but the issue is always close at hand.

Not far from the bleeding heart, a mature mountain ash tree anchors the corner of my yard. It has provided this stalwart service to me as well as to previous owners of this house for several decades now. I see it from my living room window, and it conveniently screens a power pole from view. Like its relative the apple, the bark of the mountain ash harbors a vibrant collection of lichens and mosses. This tree’s peak moment comes in late spring every year, when a noisy, cackling horde of Bohemian waxwings appears from out of nowhere to swarm the tree and feast on its clusters of small orange berries.

But the tree was dying. Each year another branch would withdraw into darkness. I began to water it religiously.  I fertilized along the dripline, and I mulched, but the decline continued, inexorably. The bleeding heart’s demise was explainable: this wasn’t. Perhaps it was a mild drought cycle, or changes to subterranean waterflows, or my shrub plantings that had grown up around it, or the salt loads from the City’s snowplowing. I will probably never know the cause of its decline.

First cut the hardest

Twenty-five feet in the air, armed with my Swede saw and galloping acrophobia, I was fully prepared to cut away the dead branches of the mountain ash. If that didn’t actually help the tree, at least it would make it look better. An hour into the pruning project I finally confronted the fact that the tree was too far gone, and had to come down.  The yard space available in which to drop the tree was quite small. I had power lines on two sides, a lilac hedge on a third, and mugho pines on a fourth. So I had to extend the already shaky ladder even farther up the tree, in order to cut it down in small chunks and drop them straight down, to a patch of grass directly below. Fortunately the main trunk was a rock-solid buttress for my ladder, but the dead branches were so decayed that they went straight into the compost bin. My first cut was the hardest, as the very top of the main trunk leaned toward the power lines. This took some planning, a rope anchor, and several nervous trips up and down the ladder. I could see the neighbors rolling their eyes again. Piece by piece the tree came down though, exactly according to plan.

Being endowed with a Clydesdale frame and appetite, but saddled with a sedentary lifestyle, I welcomed the opportunity to cut the tree up into firewood with my Swede saw. Like our domestic finances, my metabolic budget seems always to be running in the red. I fight middle-age spread by occasional running or trips to the gym, but to actually commit to these sporadic exercises requires moving several tons of inertia first. Cutting up the mountain ash was easy in comparison. I actually looked forward to getting home from work, donning grubby clothes and bathing myself in a glory of sweat, sawdust and lichens.

One of the neighbors came by and offered a chainsaw, but I said no, preferring instead the slow, quiet process of the Swede saw. At the very thickest part of the trunk I wavered on the offer, until I thought of the early loggers in this country, incredible athletes who ran huge handsaws all day while living on salt pork and beans. Over the course of several days, I gradually broke the tree down into neat piles of firewood, kindling, mulch and compost. I never actually lost any weight, but surely must have converted some fat to muscle.

Amongst the rubble

I knew there was a native western mountain ash (sorbus scopulina) and an introduced European mountain ash (sorbus aucuparia) and that they were quite similar, but had never bothered to sort out the identity of my tree. Sitting down amongst the rubble of the recently fallen sentinel, I delved into my floras to see what this one was. Thirteen turned out to be the key. Most of the leaves of the European mountain ash have thirteen or more leaflets (six leaflet pairs and one terminal leaflet); the native has mostly fewer than thirteen. The flora in its own cryptic way was inviting me to do a statistical analysis. A random count of several leaves soon identified my tree as the European mountain ash, also known by its ancient Celtic name of rowan.

Trees celebrate years by growth rings, and the annual rings on the mountain ash’s cut surfaces were plainly visible. I hauled a breast-height section of the trunk over to the garden bench and sanded the cut surface down until it was smooth. The cross-section was enchanting. Darkly stained heartwood was surrounded by blonde sapwood, and a branch initial skewed the concentric growth rings dramatically off in one direction. Here and there were sealed pockets of old insect damage.  After first consulting Stokes and Smiley’s classic Introduction to Tree Ring Dating, I got out a magnifying glass and carefully counted the annual rings. Seventy-eight years old, although tree seedlings are generally a few years old before they lay down the first growth ring.

This meant my tree was planted sometime in the 1920s, which is pretty remarkable since the town was only about thirty years old at the time, and quite isolated. Silver mining provided the initial impetus for European settlement here, but that soon shifted to “fruit ranching,” as the orchard industry was called in those days. Vintage photographs of the town show rows of cherry trees where neighbourhoods are now. The mountain ash must have come in on the coattails of that early fruit nursery trade.

Mythic species

The rowan has drawn a vast mythology unto itself, giving it more symbolic importance than perhaps any other plant species. Even the name is thought to share the same Celtic root as the word “rune.” Every early tribe in Europe laid down rowan stories and meanings, starting with the mystical pentagram that can be seen in the cut surface of the berry.  Sailors carried a small piece of the wood (a “rowan’s thumb”) to avoid death by lightning at sea, since the rowan was known to thrive in craggy, lightning-prone mountaintops. Other stories have the rowan as Eve and Adam as the alder. The rowan could ward off evil spirits, so it was planted in graveyards and dooryards. Because it was used to deter witches and spells in the Middle Ages, the rowan became a suspect symbol of witchcraft during the Enlightenment. Somehow this modest tree has been a compelling blank slate upon which we have written a host of contradictory desires and fears.

My predecessor in this house must have gone to considerable effort to get the rowan tree, suggesting that its symbolic significance was alive and well in his or her mind. One could even imagine an astrology based on trees. If I wished to have my life guided by symbols, I would be far more likely to submit to the ascendance of the rowan, the oak and the ponderosa pine, than to the circumnavigations of heaven.

In its early years, my tree laid down a solid quarter of an inch of new wood each season.  1986, for some reason, was a banner growth year. But in the last eight years of its life, the tree’s annual rings were down to paper thickness. Thinking back on the consistent abundance of its yearly crop of orange berries, I realized the sacrifice the dying tree had been making, maybe for the sake of the waxwings.

I left the trunk section on my garden bench for a time. It was good to sit next to it and muse on the tree’s life and death, encoded in the rhythm of its rings.

Don Gayton is an ecologist in Nelson, B.C., and the author of The Wheatgrass Mechanism, and Landscapes of the Interior, which won the U.S. National Outdoor Book Award. This piece is from his book manuscript Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist in the Garden.


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