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Today I Killed My Tree Three Years Ago

April 7, 2020

Merry: It’s been going on for hours.
Pippin: They must have decided something by now.
Treebeard: Decided? No, we have just finished saying “Good Morning”.
Merry: But it’s night time already! You can’t take forever!
Treebeard: Now, don’t be hasty, master Meriadoc.

The Ents were some of my favorite characters in the Lord of The Rings stories.

You must understand, young Hobbit, it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.

I killed a tree today, three years ago. Or, three years ago I killed a tree today. I’m not sure how the tenses work. But, it happened today and it happened three years ago and they were both the same event. (Maybe the Ents have a word for it.)

There’s a theory that trees can actually communicate with one another. Researchers have found that trees establish networks that allow them to share water and nutrients. They can even send distress signals warning of drought or disease through these networks. In fact, they’ve even found that trees seem to have a sense of humor. They will occasionally send distress signals when there is no distress. These networks are called mycorrhizal networks. You can find out more about them here.

Growing up in Western Washington, I was surrounded by trees. In fact, you couldn’t escape them. We had friends come from Eastern Washington. They wanted to go to dinner. We directed them to a restaurant on the other side of town. We drove through so many trees they assumed we were completely outside of town.

And yet I didn’t take them for granted. I spent too many summers in Central Washington during my growing up years. Not a lot of trees in the Inland Empire.

It was one of the hardest things about moving to Utah, the lack of trees. If you go into the mountains, the back country, there are plenty of trees. But, here in the valley, we have to plant the trees we want. The only native growing trees are the giant cottonwoods. They grow next to rivers and creeks. In the spring they release their seeds, tiny considering how big the trees are. And each tiny cottonwood seed is wrapped safely in a gathering of cotton.

Not real cotton, of course. Although, I’ve often wondered if a talented spinner, like Rumpelstiltskin, might be able to actually spin cottonwood seeds into thread.

But, other than cottonwoods, and the invasive Russian Olive trees (which don’t actually produce olives) trees need to be planted, and then cared for.

My lovely wife grew up about 35 miles from my parents’ house in Western Washington. Her father was a logger and her family lived in the middle of a 40 acre forest. Lots of Douglas Fir, Hemlock, Cedar, Vine Maple. We both love trees.

About eight years ago we moved to our present house in Pleasant Grove, Utah. It’s a wonderful double corner lot with a nice view of the lake and mountains on the far side. And not a single tree. Five years ago we decided we’d try our hand at planting. We ordered ten bare root Maples. Our neighbor, a wonderful gardener, gave us some advice on how to start bare root trees.

You’ll probably lose about half of them.

We planted for beauty, but also for shade. The summer sun can be brutal on a South and West facing stucco home. We planted some trees close together counting on the law of averages that at least one would survive to give us the shade we hoped for. Well, my neighbor was smarter than he knew. All ten trees lived. Including the ones planted a mere eight feet apart.

Not all survived. As the first year’s growth budded out, it became clear that we had an imposter. Rather than the big leafy Maple leaves, it shot forth long narrow leaves. It was an Elm. If a Maple is one of the prettiest trees God created, surely the Elm was one of the ugliest. Not just ugly, but kind of trashy.

The Elm didn’t make it. I still feel a little bad about killing it.

However, it was the death of the ninth tree that really bothered me. It started dying three years ago, when it was only a couple of years old. And it was my fault.

My Maples grew exceptionally fast. Now, five years after planting them, the tallest are nearly 40 feet tall.

Three years ago, my tree was pretty spindly. Like a gangly teenager who hasn’t filled out his body yet, my tree was all height and no breadth. One branch especially came out of the trunk at a pretty oblique angle. And it was long. I thought about trimming it.

I didn’t.

I should have.

And then one day in a wind storm, the tree died. It didn’t die right away. In fact, I didn’t even know it was dead. The long limb split.

Most of the tree looked good still. It was tall. I bound up the broken branch. I tied it up tight with the hope it would knit back together.

It didn’t. So, a year later, I cut off the broken limb. It was a large part of the trunk and it left a gaping gash. But, I thought the tree would eventually grow around the gash. I just had to be patient.

The next wind storm that took a toll on my poor tree snapped it right at the weak point. Except it wasn’t a clean break. The bark on each side was still connected. The bark is a tree’s veins and arteries. If the bark is intact, there’s still life.

So, I rigged up some ropes. I put the tree upright and staked it in place. My neighbors laughed at me. In a good natured way. However, they were all impressed when last year my weakened, staked up tree budded out. New growth.

The next wind storm pushed the tree back the opposite way of the original break. Was the bark broken? It happened in the late fall. It was too soon to tell if it would survive again. This time, I got eight foot lengths of rebar, placed them inside of PVC pipe and strapped four of them around the trunk of the tree from the solid base to the threatened top. And I staked it in all directions.

And I waited.

Spring 2020 has sprung here in Utah. The dandelions are out. The gardens are in and the trees are budding out. And I had to admit that my tree had finally completed the dying process. The branches above the break were dead and brittle. And yet, even in death, there was still a hope. The bottom foot of the tree, below the break, was still alive. Only the top was dead.

I considered training up one of the suckers from the base and letting it grow. But, I realized that even if it grew, it would be mishapen and more importantly succeptible to wind and snow.

So, my daughter and I dug out the stump. It was surpringly small for how tall the tree had been.

And I realized that while we pulled it out of the ground today, the tree actually died three years ago. I just didn’t know it at the time. But, like a slow motion car wreck, once set in motion the series of events really had only one conclusion.

I’ll miss that tree. Sure, it’s just a tree, but I spent a long time helping that tree grow. And I spent even longer helping it die.

I wonder how long it would take the Ents to say goodbye? No doubt it would take a long time. After all, they never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

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