Thursday, October 06, 2005

A bad season for trees

I grew up in windswept Wyoming, where we always said only half-sarcastically there were just two seasons: Winter and the Fourth of July. In fact, the beginning and end of the summer growing season was precise: Plant a week before Memorial Day (when the last spring frost was possible but less likely) and harvest before first frost in mid-September. Those three months from one frost to another were the only chance flowers, vegetables and trees had to thrive in the rigorous climate. The other nine months of the year were frozen, dormant or molting.

After a few years away, I returned to Wyoming as an adult, to run a daily newspaper in a small town. My then-wife and I raised our children there, tended a beautiful flower and vegetable garden, and tended trees in high-plains soil where trees generally didn't grow naturally. A tree doesn't add much to itself with only three months to grow. So every Labor Day, it was my habit to take a measure of those trees, either their height or girth, just to reassure myself they were surviving. My Labor Day logs were painfully incremental, showing the young blue spruce gaining maybe 3 or 4 inches in a year, or a Canada red cherry adding only an inch of girth.

I kept my faith in them for many years, and continued to measure them the way we penciled my son's height against the doorjamb. To have lost them would have caused some grief. Trees were too valuable in that landscape. And they became a way to mark the passage of time and, I suppose, my own growth as I became more rooted. Ultimately, I was not as rooted as I thought, and other events swept me away, gone with the wind.

When I came to Southeast Texas 18 months ago, the landscape was festooned with trees. They grew like weeds in a tropical climate, and some people removed them helter-skelter, the way some people change the furniture in their living rooms. My front yard had three majestic trees, and the back had even more. I took comfort in these eight trees' maturity and shade. They were home to birds and squirrels that made the whole place seem more like a home than a house. These were my trees and I wouldn't have dreamed of cutting them down.

But Hurricane Rita took them all. A sturdy cedar was literally ripped out by its roots. The storm sheared off the tops of three tall pines, and stripped huge branches from all the rest. The hurricane-force gusts shaved off most of the leaves, split the crotches of the trunk, shoved them perilously toward the tipping point and slashed fences across their bark. It's the same story all over this region, where grand old trees bore the greatest brunt of non-human damage. In Beaumont, the storm even claimed the oldest tree in the city, a historic oak that was older than America itself; it was so large that when it came down, it damaged three different homes.

All but two will be gone when I go home tonight. The tree-cutters were expected today to chop them down and haul them away. I'll plant more, and maybe for a while, I'll measure their growth, just to be sure. An old habit from a short season.


Orion said...

I'm glad that my family who lives outside of Jasper is ok, but one of the saddest things I heard was that the big beautiful tree that spreads its limbs over the yard near my grandmother's house is going to have to come down. At least I have a good picture of it. It will be sad to see how many other trees won't be there the next time I visit.

SingingSkies said...

There is something incredibly sad about all of the trees that have been toppled from their moorings or topped from their heights. It feels very strange to go through neighborhoods where once trees dominated the landscape and now there's nothing but skies.

Before coming to Beaumont again, I lived in Idabel, OK, a town with many beautiful old trees as well. And then came the Christmas Day ice storm. The tree damage was very similar to what we've experienced through Hurricane Rita. For weeks there were huge piles of trees and tree limbs by the side of the road, and pitiful looking trees that seemed to have no hope of surviving.

Then spring came and leaves sprouted. Sure, those topped trees looked kind of poodle-ish, and yet they grew, and continue to grow. I've been back to Idabel a couple of times since I left and it's not quite as barren as it was. It will be years before it returns to the beauty of before, but those trees don't look quite so poodle-ish now....and there's hope - a reminder for me that Beaumont, too, will be filled with trees someday.

Rightwingsparkle said...

I'm sorry to hear about your trees. I had forgotten you were in Beaumont.

It's scary how powerful that storm was. I think we all got lucky.

Rightwingsparkle said...

I just realized that that may have sounded insensitive considering all you guys have lost.

I just meant that there wasn't a large death toll.

twahl said...

This is a beautiful essay Ron. Thanks!

kathy said...

I appreciated and understood your tree essay. I like my house, but could move from it with only a few sorrows. It is my yard that I would miss desperately. I've lived here 25 years and the yard has gone from a barren suburban development yard to what amounts to a nature preserve. An apple tree was partially uprooted during a tornado, and as a result produces only small inedible apples, but it makes the birds and squirrels happy. I lost a pine tree my son planted when he was in Kindergarten to drought several years ago, but have not had the heart to cut it down. Shoot, you can't see it in the summer due to vegetation, and during the winter it matches the rest of the trees. My buckeye tree finally produced buckeyes this summer after ten years, but the darn squirrels got them. Still, the animal life is part of what I love about my little sanctuary. [ok, I could do without the moles, and the possum that appeared on my deck was way too much for me, but still] To me, losing all of my trees would be incredibly sad. I'm sure the starkness of your yard is shocking at times Ron. The good thing is knowing that it will all come back someday. It is one of the few things you can truly count on.

Mover Mike said...

Ron, you might enjoy reading my take on death and fall colored trees in Kobayashi Maru's Brother,