A red oak meets its end, but not the limit of what it can offer. A decade ago, when I first moved to an 1850s farmhouse set beside two huge red oaks, my new neighbor, Mrs. Atwood, heaved open her window and leaned out to announce, “Your leaves are on my lawn.” I stood by my […]
By Julia Shipley
Dec 07 2015
The Giving TreePhoto Credit : Elinor Osborn
A red oak meets its end, but not the limit of what it can offer.
A decade ago, when I first moved to an 1850s farmhouse set beside two huge red oaks, my new neighbor, Mrs. Atwood, heaved open her window and leaned out to announce, “Your leaves are on my lawn.” I stood by my rake and stared at her. Was she serious? She was. “That tree is making a mess of my lawn.” Her unspoken command was, “So if you’re gonna rake ‘em, rake ‘em all.”
My oaks, I soon learned, were deemed the biggest of their species in the area and all the more special for not often being found this far north. Every spring I second-guessed their longevity. They were the last trees to show signs of leaf growth, but by late May they’d finally debuted to make a great shade, holding on till late October when their foliage turned a rusty gold. Those leaves would then hold until after all the other trees had been blown clean.
Mrs. Atwood and her husband, retired dairy farmers, have both lived along this dirt road in this tiny town in Northern Vermont for decades longer than I, the farmer-come-lately. But this particular red oak, whose leaves she said had trespassed her property, predated us all. In fact, had you added my age to her age and her husband’s age, well, you’d be getting close to the day this behemoth sprouted its first leaf.
I knew when I began my sole proprietorship that I was accepting responsibility for a leaky roof, a buckled retaining wall, and an ailing hot water heater; I also knew I was assuming legal guardianship of two centenarian trees, a job, despite my best intentions, at which I’ve succeeded and failed.
Standing side by side, this pair of lordly trees has presided over the boundary line between my home and my neighbors’ home since before Lincoln’s time. There’s the remnant of a wagon wheel’s iron hoop protruding from the trunk of the thinner oak, as if someone had planted the sapling within, and as the tree expanded, presumably the wooden spokes rotted, and the thickening tree grew to and beyond this rim. Indications of more recent modes of travel have also been unearthed, including a metal toy car from the 1930s that was found at the base of the bigger tree, the one whose foliage troubled Mrs. Atwood’s lawn.
Two springs into my stewardship, standing in front of the house one day, I heard an unnerving creak. March winds were wrenching a significant limb from the bigger oak. “Leave it,” a man from a tree service told me upon inspecting the situation. I looked at him with incredulity as we both stood there in my driveway watching the limb flap open and shut like a hinge. But what if it falls on the road? This is part of the school bus route.
“Act of God,” he replied.
After calling around, I secured a tree worker who showed up and strapped on some tree spikes and climbed 60 feet and felled the monstrous limb with his chainsaw. With nothing dangling or cracked and creaking, and with the trees’ lush canopies still turning a deep green in summer and tawny in fall, I thought the matter was settled. We’d all go on as we did before. And we did: I picked up twigs after storms, I transplanted sprouting acorns, I raked every autumn, imperfectly. And then I met a man who asked me to marry him. Two months before our on-farm wedding Howie picked me up at the train station with a panicked look on his face.
“Sweetheart?” I asked.
“We need to get going,” he replied.
He said that he’d received a phone call just as my train pulled in and learned one of the oaks had dropped a huge limb, which was blocking the road, and had pulled down our power lines, and had crushed our truck in our driveway. We had an hour’s drive ahead—a quiet, tense ride.
Sometimes when it rains a lot, Matt Forrester, the aptly named tree surgeon explained, a tree can take up so much water that its weight becomes unsustainable and it can drop a limb or even collapse. There had been no strong winds recently, nor any suspiciously cracked branches, but we’d had some torrential rains, which resulted in a violent consequence for the old tree.
Approaching home, in the beam of our headlights, we saw a tangle of limbs, branches—pieces and torsos of the oak were everywhere. I wondered, come morning, how much Mrs. Atwood would have to say about all this.
In the meantime, another neighbor and former volunteer fireman, Dave Brown, had stepped in to serve as our proxy, greeting the electric company; rerouting traffic. Now as we parked by the barn, and crept and picked a route across the debris-ridden lawn, we assumed full custody. In the days following, a crew showed up to extricate the crushed truck and bring down the remaining trunk that was listing toward the road. We rented a super chipper, and spent a weekend feeding it branches. We bought a second-hand wood splitter.
Our tree was, for a while, a topic extensively discussed by the early morning coffee club at the Village Store. Meanwhile, my fiancé and I drew numerous drive-bys and rubberneckers as we spent the eight weeks leading up to our wedding working in the yard with earplugs crammed in our ears to soften the blare of our cutting and splitting.
At least we don’t have to worry about firewood this year we’d remind each other, marveling at its pink flesh—oh, so this is why they call it “Red.”
Recently, a local college student stopped over to interview us about the big tree’s life history. For his senior project he’s identifying all the other red oaks in the area. His hypothesis is that they’re all progeny of our remaining one and its cut companion, whose broad stump boasts more than 150 rings, an emblem of everything that has happened here, both a kind of clock and fingerprint.
Before its conclusion, someone in a bucket-lift had measured its height: 75 feet. After its demise Howie and I wrapped a tape around the base of its formidable vestige: 125 inches. To give the student a fuller picture, we fetched the newspaper article with photos of the hefty limb across the truck. We flaunted our array of firewood stored on the porch and under a long train of tin by the property line. We showed him where we’d hid more slabs, and other portions too big for our saws. Then we brought out one of our favorite wedding gifts: a wide, handsome bowl that our proxy neighbor, Dave Brown, had turned on his lathe from a chunk of our oak.
The tree is over, Howie noted, watching the student scramble up the bank across the road, searching for other related trees, but its story keeps going.