Tree begone

As a custodian of Our Old House, I’m always conscious of how to maintain it and still make twenty-first-century changes without drastically altering or (gasp) destroying the historic integrity of the property. Making those decisions is not always easy, especially when there is clearly no choice in the matter. Cue the drafty ancient windows, the continually-aging floorboards, the old garage with the “waving roof,” and the 90-foot rotting maple trees.

We still deal with the windows and the floors (not a level inch anywhere in this house!), but the garage is gone, and so are the trees, those huge maple trees that graced the front of the property, blocking dust, noise, snow, wind, and the hot summer sun while shading the front rooms. They provided sap for maple syrup and sugar for even the earliest generations of my family, bushels of leaves for mulch, and perches for multiple varieties of birds.

The family story states that originally five maples were planted sometime in the 1840s by a friend and neighbor of Asa Williams, Jr., and they have become as much a part of the history of this house as the house and its families. I may be the only family historian who traces the provenance of family trees as well as the lineage of relatives.

While the house has stood solid for over 230 years, the maples grew. And grew. And then grew more. Topping out at about ninety feet, four of them stood sentry in front, side by side, until The Grim Sawyer noticed our beautiful trees.

Sometime in the early 1960s, when my mother and I returned home from school after a strong storm, we found the first maple stretched across the road in a most undignified manner. Its fate was gruesome and involved the power company and large chain saws. The stump remains as the base for a clump of daylilies and a new sugar maple.

Its fate was gruesome and involved the power company and large chain saws.

The maple tree that had been growing on the south side of the house had always been my playground, supporting a swing, big enough to climb, and shading many family al fresco suppers beneath its limbs. Again, a heavy storm about 1980 brought it down, missing the house, garage, grape arbor, and flower beds. Mother Nature is a good shot.

Soon, it became clear that the old maples were aging faster than our efforts to cable, prune, or support them. My mother had a third one taken down, and in August 2012 I had to watch another come down for safety’s sake.

There remained one maple tree in front of My Old House, and it, too, had aged too long. A home for squirrels, chipmunks, and carpenter ants, it harbored more soil-creating rot than any ancient tree should, and would not have withstood another strong, sustained wind. It, too, came down before it fell on its own, possibly on us and Our Old House, or some unsuspecting driver passing by (I’m tempted to nominate several speeders as candidates for “the fall”). We took a photo of one section, in color, because, really, how often do you get to see the inside of a huge tree?

We counted the rings, the arborist counted the rings, and we all stopped at 173-plus rings because the rest were not defined well enough to count. That put its probable planting sometime in the early 1840s, when Asa Williams Jr. (1795-1857) owned the house. One family story verified, at least in part. Maybe Junior wanted to replace some of the trees his father had worked so hard clearing away!

It’s not like we are without maple trees on this property! We have enough to create fall leaves two feet deep over the entire yard. But this is the last of the historic maples, a ninety-foot tall, four-plus-foot diameter giant of my childhood, a mature tree that appears in the oldest house photos I have. While I try to maintain the unaltered appearance of My Old House, this is one major player I can neither control nor ignore.

I have already started replanting a sentry line of maple trees, but I’ll never see them mature to full glory. (I age faster than they do!) Perhaps in another 173-plus years, someone else will have to make a decision about whether to take down the trees or maybe the house itself!

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

12 thoughts on “Tree begone

  1. hope that last tree became wooden bowls, a chair, a table etc. We lost a huge and rotting pine….not much left was usable.

    1. Sadly, there was not enough clear wood remaining to mill for anything; I do have a small chunk of it though. However, I am happy that we had a settle bench made from some of the original wood wall not reused in our kitchen restoration effort years ago.

  2. I’m so sorry. In recent years, we’ve lost a number of the oaks around our house. We’re letting saplings grow up where we can, but they don’t yet have the character of the old ones.

  3. A friend had to take down an old pecan and then used the wood for kitchen and bathroom cabinets..could maple floors have solved the problem of your old ones?

    1. Hi! My uneven floors are the original floors, laid down 234 years ago. I treasure every crown, gap, and dent as much as I complain about them. Of the 6 maple trees we’ve had to take down, I came away with less wood than needed to make a thimble!

  4. Oh, I know that feeling, Jan! My house isn’t the family house, which is a continent away. But when I bought it, I read back in the deed books to learn as much as I could. And walked the perimeter of my tiny village lot to see what it had to teach me. I realized that alone of the houses here, my house still had witness trees where each survey marker would have been (I found only two markers placed by a relatively recent survey and suspect that a magnet might reveal more). But there are still two witness trees, and a stump where another had been.

    The one at the back corner was still healthy, a magnificent full tree that served as the intersection of several squirrel highways. Alas, it was also the tallest tree, and eventually became a lightening magnet, losing one branch after another over the years. I left it because there is nothing it could damage if it fell (except my ancient semi-decrepit carriage barn whose main purpose now is wood storage). The tree, against all odds, stood, until one summer it was struck twice in one storm. The first strike took off the entire top. The second took off one of the three remaining lower limbs, and the return jumped to another, shattering the top of the bole. The tree literally bent over at the waist.

    I left it: it was no danger to anything and provided fine housing for a variety of birds and other creatures. One of the strikes had started a fire that apparently smoldered for some time and hollowed out the trunk- I didn’t discover this until later. A water sprout grew up in that hollow and melded with the cambrian that still living in the standing part of the bole, keeping alive the one remaining limb. The sprout grew out a hole left by one of the fallen limbs. So raggedy looking, yet it still housed many nests, and a number of birds, so I left it. And the hollow bole was entrancing: I could stand in it and look up to see where the water sprout had become integrated with the side of the trunk, and where it went through to reach skyward.

    But just a couple of weeks ago, I heard a loud crack. An abrupt and unexpected wind squall had dropped that last surviving limb of the original tree. The bole is leaning. And I am debating with myself about having it taken out. The water sprout is now a tree on it’s own. The old tree is leaning on it, and it’s remains eventually will slough off. Who is to say that that sprout won’t simply become a new witness tree?

    1. Wow! Now that is the story of a tree! We’re still trying to make up to the birds and wildlife for the removal of the last two trees we took down.

  5. An article in the alumni email from University of Michigan to,d of the old oaks probably planted in the mud 1800s that were meeting the same fate. With only one remaining, a student in the 2000s picked as many acorns he could that were in good shape. He convinced his father to plant them on their property. His father mowed over several saplings, leaving only 2. When the last old oak on campus was to come down, the former student volunteered ne of the saplings to take the old oak’s place. So that oak family lives with n.

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