An arborist stopped by this afternoon to give me an estimate on a few clean-up jobs on our suburban plot. I’d noticed that one of the volunteers in the corner of the house we seldom visit was dying. Yellow leaves were peeking over the rooftop. Russell took one glance over the shingles and said, “Looks like Dutch elm disease to me.”
We wandered around to that side of the house to discover that there were two elms, side by side, in distress. That was news to me.
“These will have to go,” he said. “When the city sees them they’ll give you thirty days to remove them.” That was an easy decision to make.
On our way back to the front yard I pointed out four trees that have sprouted along the side of the house and now reach above twenty feet in height.
“For a few years I thought these were sumac,” I said. “Then I noticed they weren’t suckering. Then it dawned on me—they’re walnut trees! Do you think they’re too close to the house?”
“I’d remove that one by the window well,” Russell said. “Otherwise they look fine to me.”
Back in the front yard, I did my best to point out a few dead branches concealed within the now-verdant foliage of a forty-foot basswood tree. Then it was around to the back, where we examined the drooping branches of a large silver maple that were blocking garden sunlight and flirting with the power-lines running to the house.
“I would recommend cutting that entire branch off back to the trunk,” Russell suggested. “We’ll have to arrange with the power company to shut off the electricity. You might be out for the whole day.”
“We lose power here three or four times a year anyway,” I replied with a grin.
“It’s because of all the trees.”
“Often the other side of the street is fine. You see these thick cables running in and out of windows and across the street…”
“Same thing in our neighborhood,” he said.
Russell had an easy-going manner and an obvious enthusiasm for trees; I felt like was talking to Gary Snyder's little brother. We had long since entered a comfortable chatting zone, and having come to the end of my arboreal to-do list, I said, “See any other tree issues crying out for attention?”
“Things look good. You have a lot of nice trees. But this oak…” he said, pointing to a pin oak fifteen feet from the deck. “You see that dark vein in the leaf?”
“I know, it’s an iron deficiency. It used to be worse.”
“Iron and manganese. You probably have clay soil, which tends to be more acidic. We could inject the tree with an active agent that would be effective for three years. But it costs $250.”
“I don’t know… I sort of like that dark vein in the leaf,” I said. “Ten years ago lots of the leaves were entirely yellow. And a tree just grows until it dies, anyway.”
“That’s true,” Russell agreed. “Ninety percent of all trees die. They get out-competed.”
I think he meant to say that ninety percent of all trees die before reaching maturity. (All trees die eventually.)
“What about these?” I asked, turning in the opposite direction toward five tall spruce trees standing in a row, bare trunks rising to considerable height before the tufts of needles commence. “In 1948 our former neighbor planted them as $1 seedlings. I suppose they might have to go eventually…”
“That wouldn’t be cheap. Difficult access, power lines right there. I would guess $6,000. But they’re doing fine for now.”
“They used to have needles down to the ground. But I’ve read that Colorado spruce can live to 600 years.”
“That seems like a stretch. Certainly not in this environment. Sitka spruce on the west coast might live that long,” he said. Then he added, as if to cheer me up, “White pine can go to three hundred years or more.”
“I’ve seen some old ones in the Boundary Waters. And the Lost Forty. But you know, they’re not that much bigger than a hundred-year-old pine. And they’re widely scattered. It’s not like you’re walking through MuirWoods or anything.”
Turns out Russell had just gotten back from Muir Woods (a redwood grove on the California coast north of San Francisco.) “That’s my first time out that way,” he said. “Awesome.”
At that point our conversation turned to how little people know about trees. I mentioned that I once spent a week in Yosemite without meeting a single person who knew how to differentiate the Jeffries pine from the Ponderosa--even the rangers. (I don’t know either.) Then in was on to old growth forests, pockets of virgin timber up near Lac La Croix that we’d both visited on Oyster and Gebeoniquet Lakes.
Trees, trees, trees.
“When I was in high school I considered becoming a forester,” I mentioned at one point. “I even attended a forestry camp called Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River, Wisconsin. I’m not sure how I ended up in European history.”
Eventually I went back inside and Russell wandered the yard with his clipboard, then sat in his car for half an hour writing up a proposal, drawing a map and numbering all the trees in the yard backward from 99.
The final proposal didn’t look too bad to me. Two thirds of it—removing the elms—was required by law.
“Should I sign this?” I asked.
“If you feel it’s necessary.”
“Doesn’t matter to me.”
So we set up a tentative date-range, dependent on getting the power company out to cut off the electricity.
And then he was telling me about the Midway-Frogtown Arborators Band, for which he plays the saxophone. They’re doing a gig at the Turf Club on June 27.
Alas, I’m going to miss it.