As longtime readers of this blog may know, I live in the woods, on a beautiful piece of land I call, rather tongue-in-cheek, 'Old Oak Hill'. It isn't the grand plantation or manor home that the name suggests, but there is a grand oak tree that crowns the hill and can be seen from a half mile away, towering over the other trees in the woods. When the weather is icy, I refer to my homeplace as Mount B----- (the name of the street I live on). Mount B seems like a Cat 3 climb in a difficult Midwest winter.
I drove by Old Oak Hill on my daily commute for seven years, always admiring the trees that shrouded the house three seasons of the year, the deer that sometimes jumped out of the ravine and into the road, sometimes a opossum or fox that would scamper once the headlights of the car would beam around the bend. When the For Sale went up when we were looking for a new home, I called my realtor although I was skeptical that the place could actually be mine.
We looked at the house in September, when all the leaves were still on the trees. My son, then 10, was excited that he could identify 27 different types of native trees on the property, thanks to a recently completed tree unit in his science class. When we went back for a second visit before making a bid, I noticed two tall trees stumps, about 15 feet tall and 15 feet apart, standing totem-pole like at the edge of the drive. Neither tree had any branches; when the surrounding trees were in leaf, you wouldn't notice immediately that these were stumps. In the late fall, once the leaves of surrounding trees had fallen, they stood like sentries, guarding the woods behind them.
Over the last 11 years I've watched myriad birds perch on the sides of these stately stumps: robins, wrens, sparrows, and crows, yellow-belly sapsuckers, red-headed flickers, and pilated woodpeckers. Squirrels and chipmunks would crawl up them. For a few years, before the insides began to rot, they spent time sunning themselves on the tops on warm spring days. Snow piled on top of them during winter storms, looking like caps with earflaps hanging down the sides. I've taken a lot of pleasure looking at these trees, not only watching the wildlife, but also imagining how magnificent they must have been when they had leafy crowns.
Over the years, though, the insides have started to rot. The flickers and woodpeckers finding food in the crevices of the bark were a sure sign that lots of small inhabitants of the insect world had made their homes inside the trunks. The flat tops of the stumps caved in, leaving ragged edges. Large sections of bark fell this spring, reveling the decaying insides. It was interesting to look at the cracks and crevices in the rotting tree. The variety of textures on one tree -- smooth, cracked, powdery -- revealed nature's progress at returning the tree to the earth. But, while Mother Nature was doing her things, decomposing the tree slowly over time, it became clear that either tree could easily be toppled in a storm, presenting potential dangers to people, property, or other still thriving trees. Sometimes being a good steward of the land means you need to remove a tree. And that is what was done yesterday.
As the tree trimmers felled the more solid of the two, I heard them laugh. One reached over, picked something up and held it for me to see. "A little mouse", he laughed, as he gently set it down at the edge of the woods. "He had a nice home, there". So, I was not only destroying a perch and pantry for birds and a playground for squirrels, but a home for field mice.
When I woke today I heard the birds chirping and the squirrels squeaking. "Where's the big tree", I imagined they were saying. I walked to where the trees had been to survey the area this morning. The negative space where the trees once stood looks stark: only bark and sawdust shavings remain, and two large holes in the earth.
I'll miss seeing these trees from my house. Soon the negative space will fill in with other trees and ground cover. The woods will recapture the holes and all sorts of interesting things will grow. The birds, squirrels, chipmunks and deer will still visit the woods, foraging, nesting, resting on or under other trees as they have always done. Still, I think I'll put out some extra bird seed this afternoon for my feathered friends -- and their furry woods neighbors.