Dealing with death of a 'birth tree'

November 01, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,susan.reimer@baltsun.com

In the O. Henry short story The Last Leaf, a silly and morbid bohemian artist, who falls ill with the season's epidemic of pneumonia, tells her roommate that she will die when the last leaf is wrested from the vine outside her window by the harsh November wind.

Behrman, an old German painter who lives below the women, goes out on a bitter, rainy night to paint his masterpiece - a leaf on a brick wall - to convince the young woman that the last leaf survived the night and to keep her from giving in to death. It is he, however, who contracts pneumonia and dies.

I am feeling a lot like Behrman these days.

My daughter's "birth tree," an October Glory maple we planted not long after she was born 22 years ago, has died, and Jessie is convinced this bodes ill for her as well.

"Does this mean I am going to die, too?" she asked. She was kidding, but she was spooked.

"Only if you keep driving like a maniac," I said.

The maple leafed out only modestly last spring, and I was immediately suspicious. When those spare and smallish leaves turned brown and fell during the first heat wave of summer, I could no longer pretend the tree was simply reacting conservatively after a season of drought.

A visit by a tree doctor revealed the cause of death: root girdling. The roots had literally wrapped around and around themselves and strangled themselves.

"Did my tree commit suicide?" Jessie asked. I told her no, that it was my fault. I had built a berm of hostas underneath the tree - no grass would grow because the maple's shallow roots sucked everything up like a network of vacuum hoses.

In doing so, I raised the level of the ground cover around the tree and cut off its oxygen supply.

"You killed my tree," Jessie said, and she looked like she was about to break into tears.

I felt awful. Like I had accidentally run over the family pet while backing the car out of the driveway.

"But I didn't mean to," I said, defensively. "I didn't do it on purpose."

"Don't worry. We will plant you a new tree," I said, not having any idea what such a thing would cost.

A lot, it turns out. About $700 to remove the tree and extract the stump and roots. Another $500 to buy and plant a new tree somewhat larger than a sapling.

My husband had a fit.

All he could see were $20 bills hanging off that tree where the leaves used to be.

"My brother and I will take it down," he said.

"You will not," I said.

I reminded him that the last time he played with a chain saw, he cut a terrible gash in his shin just getting it out of the car's trunk.

"You are not climbing that tree with a chain saw. I will find a professional to do it."

Which is tougher than you think.

Either everybody is getting out of the tree-cutting business because of the inherent dangers in chain saws, or everybody's trees are dying as a result of a couple of very dry seasons and that has caused tree cutters to become overwhelmed with business. I learned quickly that it is harder to hire somebody to take down a tree than it is to get a plumber during a flood.

When some random guy walked up to my husband while he was working in the yard, pointed to the dead maple and offered to cut it down, my husband was ready to sign him up.

"Are you crazy," I asked. "Who is this guy? Where did he come from? Who does he work for? Is he insured? Has he ever taken a tree down before or is he just looking to earn a few bucks?"

I will let you know, but I think I found a professional to take down my tree, although he is really hard to get on the phone.

In the meantime, my husband had to remove the small slate rock wall I had used to make the hosta bed that had killed the tree. He worked in the rain to do it.

"Don't try to move them," he said when I offered to help with the rocks. "You don't need another broken foot [that's another story] and you aren't good with rocks."

"Yeah, well," I said with a sniff. "You're not good with chain saws."

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