The Iroquois considered the maple tree a sacred symbol, and a direct gift from God. For those northeast natives, a maple’s wood and sap were valuable resources. They celebrated an annual thanksgiving festival with the rising of the sap to commemorate another year of the tree’s life, and their own as a nation.
For the better part of the past decade, two such trees have been on my mind. One midsummer I noticed flashes of red turning early on the large sugar maple behind the house, and since then, I’ve kept a closer eye on it. A much smaller red maple on my front lawn also looked all wrong, hit with a yellowish hue in summer that didn’t portend for vibrant falls.
The latter tree was a concern because of its tender age. Years ago, when we moved into our home, it had been difficult to ignore the nudity of its façade. I’d always known the elms which once graced the neighborhood had been gone for decades, victims of the scourge which decimated their North American ranks.
But in my yard a maple had later taken their place, but was later removed. Its root system interfered with the house’s ceramic drainage pipes, thus sealing its fate and leaving behind a bare lawn. So after years of stalling, we procured a sapling and placed it away from the old spot. There it could live long enough to grace the street with a swath of afternoon shade, and its dwelling with some modest attire.
To lose a child is anathema, but saying good-bye to a parent evokes similar grief. The 40-foot stalwart in the back yard didn’t hide its health problems. They’d been lingering for some time, lost in my family’s habitual distractions.
From the start we enlisted the help of Ron Pembroke, an arborist whose allegiance to all things green and growing is as fervent as his demeanor is unassuming. When planting the tree in the front yard he spoke as if it were his only child: A girl venturing forth on her first day of school, and against every parental instinct, entrusted to the care of others.
But the maple towering on the other side of the house was brought to Ron’s attention some years later. When called upon, he triaged his patient and laid out several treatment options. That day he stood neutral, his wait-and-see attitude tempered by seasons of knowing when to make a snap judgment, and when to plan for the long haul.
After several summers of babying, though, Ron couldn’t hide his unease. He dove headfirst into pruning the adolescent red maple, staying upbeat throughout that exercise. In the back yard, the prospects didn’t seem as buoyant. We agreed on further action with hope, but I still recall how slowly he’s depart, as if measuring the grand dame’s prospects in each of his steps, and coming up short.
I was heartened by the child but fretted for the parent. If the street was to miss out on the red maple’s style, we can always try again. But the sugar maple’s umbrella, our home’s guardian in warmer months, took decades to span, planted well before my days. It was threatened by a sluggish decline that hid its fate for years, and would take longer than a lifetime to replace.
So I prepared for the axe to fall, literally. I believed the firewood might be of some consolation on winter nights, with a glass of wine or a favorite book. Still, I’d rather just pay someone every fall to drop two cords in my driveway. And patience is a virtue.
This year, for the first time in memory, the old gal in the back showed new growth. And the teenager out front didn’t shed its sickly leaves in August. Every time Ron stops in to check on other projects, he glances at both trees, his step now a little lighter, and a faint nod signaling his approval.
It’s now past Columbus Day, and the first freezes have come. Crimson leaves from late September are raining on Earth, filling ponds of rust beneath their maples. Eventually, they’ll tumble across the grass from shade to light, coaxed along by October’s breeze, the answer to an Iroquois prayer.
Telly Halkias is an award winning freelance journalist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org