May 29, 2014
That sad mess you see in my backyard is the truncated remains of my favorite tree ever: a giant silver maple that grew in a curious and uniquely rewarding pattern. The clean, white cuts show where I lopped off the limbs that finally lay down one night last week and covered about half of my neighbor’s backyard.
What made this tree so wonderful was that it was horizontal. Something early in life sent it not up, but out. It had four or five giant branches — really more like trunks — that grew parallel to one another, inclining at a slight vertical angle but basically growing out until they stretched 40 or 50 feet from the base. Hold your hand up with fingers spread, then turn it sideways. That’s how this tree grew.
It was a perfect tree for kids. They could safely walk along the lowest branch, four or five feet above the ground. It was like being on a very large and forgiving balance beam, with soft ground underneath. The more adventurous could do the same thing on successively higher branches, until they were up as high as 20 or 30 feet.
We had a cat who loved to climb that tree. He’d strut around on the highest branches like he owned the place, and it drove the birds nuts, because they didn’t like having their aerie invaded. Whenever we heard a HUGE, screeching ruckus of bird noise, we knew that Starlight was walking his beat up in the top branches.
In the last couple of years, it became apparent that the tree was losing the battle against gravity. Its branches were so big and so heavy and so horizontal that eventually they had to drag the whole thing down. I gauged the progress of the battle by referring to a bird feeder I hung in the tree a few years ago. When I hung it, I had to use a stepladder. Last summer, I could refill it by standing on my tiptoes. And last week, it was dangling at waist level.
When I woke up Monday morning, the whole tree was on the ground, in my yard and my neighbor’s. True to form, it didn’t damage anything or even depart with a rending crack. It just lay down quietly during the night.
I don’t know how old that tree was. Someone told me the silver maple isn’t a long-lived tree — they said 60 or 70 years is usually the limit. Mine was probably younger than that — it certainly would have lasted longer had it grown straight and tall. But clearly, at my age, I’m not going to live long enough to see an equally imposing tree grow in its place. And even if that were possible, I’d never be able to reproduce the odd confluence of location and distortion that made this such a wonderful tree to have in my backyard for the last 12 years.