Monday, November 10, 2008


Since I’m resisting turning on my floor furnace and piecing along with a couple of electric heaters (which works pretty well with temps hitting fifty in the daytime and thirty at night), but now and then I get a little chilled. Then I go out to the attached garage where my little woodstove is on a concrete floor, and enjoy burning sticks for a half-hour or so, pleasantly scorching my shins and face. They’re windfall off my trees, mostly the poplars on the north side, the first trees to leaf in the spring and the first ones to dump their leaves in the fall. But I do have some pitchy dead branches off the tall blue spruce at the SW corner of the lot. They tend to throw sparks so I have to move my tubs of windfall back from the stove.

Today in the paper is another article warning us all about “tiny black pine bark beetles.” An invaded tree pumps pitch out through the entry boring, which sometimes succeeds in repelling the bug, but other times doesn’t and creates what’s called a “pitch tunnel.” Great Falls has lost 300 Scotch pines this year. I’m chicken to go out and look for pitch tunnels on my two blue spruces. Maybe I’ll do it at the end of this post.

Great Falls was intended by Paris Gibson, the founder, to be a “tree city” and he made sure that the neat grid of trees was planted with elms like so many mid-western towns. In 1961 the avenues were tunnels of green when I went to teachers’ conventions, and one of my pleasures was to walk from the Civic Center up to the Russell Museum (then only a small Trigg collection), scuffing leaves all the way. In those days they allowed burning, so drifting incense was everywhere. When Dutch elm disease got to Great Falls, the city forester was braced and ready. Infested trees came out, remaining trees were transfused with pesticide. Many trees were saved and the gaps were filled again with resistant species.

In Choteau the trees were planted with cottonwoods, which have a lifespan of about a century, so that most of them have aged out in the past decades. No plan for replacement was ever pursued. Valier considers itself a “Tree City” and has a banner in the town hall to proclaim it. But it’s a constant battle to keep up the raking, watering, pruning, and the natural tendency of grain farmers to want everything flat, square, and neat wars against the aesthetics of yard gardeners who love the arcs and rustles of deciduous trees. Birch, hawthorne, apple, and so on are spotted around the houses. In fact, there are enough apple trees, mostly small hardy fruit and not often sprayed, that I once suggested we get a communal cider press and have a day when we all gathered apples and ran them through, splitting the cider. The reaction I got was that communal things are not good. People cheat and the apples might be diseased. Oh.

My wild plum tree has about aged out, throwing up a thicket of thorny suckers. I’ll pick out one to stake straight and grub up the rest eventually. Right now I was surprised to see small yellow shelf fungus growing tiered at the base of the trunk. I’ve sawed off so many dead branches that it has a strange shape. The cats loved it best of all until the branch that was their highway to the top of the bunk house finally came down. The poplars are colonized by robins who raise their noisy babies there every spring. They are infested by something that I don’t know about: a kind of fungus. Here’s a photo.

Poplars are sort of easy-come, easy-go softwood. They are not making shade for me and their surfacing roots make it impossible to mow the lawn except with a power machine. (I use a weed whacker.) But in fall their intense cadmium yellow leaves stand against the enamel blue sky and even in winter when they are only branches, they rise like flames against the night sky, lit by the streetlights. They do help to break the constant wind from that side.

The silverleaf cottonwood on the south side is more ecologically vital since it’s shade in summer but considerately bare in winter. These trees evolved along streams in relatively windless places, so their arms reach out and out horizontally, sometimes drooping to create a kind of shelter underneath. The old man who rode his mower around the Baptist empty lot despised the low branches, which got in his way. We went to war over his practice of cutting off everything lower than his head. I won, so once I saw him plunge under the tree and come out wreathed with leaves, broken branches on his shoulders. He’s in a nursing home now.

This tree reaches past the house to get sunshine. In summer 2007 the wind broke one of the higher branches, splitting it lengthwise through the middle so the outer part took a sharp bend down. The leaves all dried and the neighbors came to tell me I had to cut it off. I thought so, too, but my ladder wouldn’t go high enough and I just put it off. In summer 2008 it somehow regenerated and put out leaves!

There’s a small maple at the back of the lot that’s growing out over the alley -- a big no-no in Neatland -- and the trunk is split at a fork up close to the top. It also shades the best place for me to plant raspberries. I managed to saw off a lot of the branches on the side towards the house, but then Petunia begged me to spare her side because it is so beautiful. Maybe without the weight of the extra branches it won’t split anymore. On the other hand, maybe it will grow taller and interfere with the power lines. But I haven’t got enough money yet to plant raspberries anyway.

The lesson that trees teach is that everything changes. Well, every living thing teaches that. So does every dead thing. My mother’s girlhood stories included one about their old horse dying just over a hilltop and how she and her pinafored sisters would make the trek up there now and then to see what stage of decomposition it was in. Solemnly they observed and remembered as it swelled, burst, mummified, and converted to bone.

Once I saw a time-lapse photo of trees sprouting, growing, changing shape, losing branches, reaching farther, dancing wildly in the wind, standing bare up through drifting-down snow -- and finally falling. The waves of parasites and diseases come through, the birds and animals find their uses, the leaves spread and then drop. Chestnut trees crowd the eastern forests, then all die in a plague. Douglas fir carpet my cousins’ ranch in Roseburg, Oregon, then all are sold and trucked away. Shelter belts are planted and nurtured, then the house is moved to town and the droughty rows die in place.

Ric Masten used to sing, “Let it be a dance we do -- may I have this dance with you?” (I see no pitch tunnels.)


Anonymous said...

There is no substitute for the smell of willows in the spring, cottonwoods in the summer, maples (in Missoula) in the fall, and Russian olives (in the stove) in winter (or blooming again in spring). I loved trees on the prairie, where you could enjoy each individual tree for its unique beauty and you never lost the tree for the forest.

The Fam said...

Walked into the back yard this morning to see a pecan tree had fallen over last night. Man, I miss those islands of trees on the prairie.

Anonymous said...

Nice essay, Mary. We lost a huge hackberry last February and we had a tree fall over on the 11th (day-before-yesterday). I've not gone into the woods to see what kind it is. There are a couple of well-spaced volunteer oak (unknown variety--blunt-lobed leaves) seedlings out there that I plan to let grow. Other than that, in the small portion of the woods that is on "our" property (about 35% of our 1-acre lot) we have a couple of old black walnuts many hackberries (most are under 3" D), a couple of mulberries, a few elms, a relatively young cottonwood (guessing it's about 25 years old) and a couple of old ones, and an eastern cedar. Oh! And a few young box elders.
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