The roar of my Stihl chainsaw is deafened as I hit the kill switch. To my right hand side I see neatly sawn lengths of sugar maple each about a foot and a half in length. The hard maple branch has broken off a tree that recently died. It is identical to another branch, located to my to my left, that was cut up earlier in the day. The butt of each 60 foot branch is two feet in diameter and the main trunk of the tree, still standing, is about five feet in diameter. As I look at the sugar maple trunk I am chilled by the sight of a huge stump broken off about 12 feet above the root crown in a jagged, uneven shape. I am looking at the corpse of a once mighty tree.
I first noticed this tree during the winter of 1975, the year that I purchased this land. It was strong and healthy with long extended branches reaching out over 50 feet in each direction. The tree dwarfed the rest of the pole stand, trees averaging about 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Around the base of the tree hay scented fern, sugar maple saplings, and a few hobble bush shrubs grew. The forest in this area is dominated by sugar maple, most likely the descendants of this enormous tree. I was in my early twenties then, and I remember thinking that the tree would outlast me. Sadly, it didn’t.
A tree of this size is probably about 300 years old. It could be a little younger if it has had good growing conditions; the right soil, the right aspect, the right amount of sunlight. At some point, likely about 200 years ago, someone cleared the woods for sheep pasture. They probably took one look at the trunk of the 100 year old sugar maple and a second look at the length of the blade of their crosscut saw and decided that it would be a fine tree for shade. With most of the forest cleared around it, the tree blossomed! Its’ branches grew out wide like wings, collecting the sunlight during the warm months. It put as much energy growing in breadth as in height. It grew in the open pasture for about 100 years and then everything began to change, again. The pasture was abandoned and the fields were covered with goldenrod and asters. After about ten years shrubs and saplings began to dot the open area, and eventually the saplings grew into trees, all about the same age. When I came upon this piece of land the pole stand was about 50 years old, it is now about 85 years old.
This tree is not far from our house, perhaps 300 yards. It was close enough that over the years I sought it out as a place to go and sit, even if it were just for a few minutes. I sat there after I was married to my wife, Maureen. Our marriage ceremony was not far away. I remember sitting there soon after the birth of each of my two boys. I sat there after loosing my dog Hickory. I sat there after my father died. And I sat there after my mother died on a cold winter day only two and a half years ago. To me it is a hallowed place, and it was a very special tree.
Perhaps my fondest memory of this tree happened on a June day in 1987. My oldest son, Brendan was 4 years old and I was wandering about the woods and we happened upon this tree. It was one of those special days when the sky was blue with big, white, blustery clouds. Strong winds blew that day moving clear, cool air through the forest that filled your lungs with life. I sat with my back against the tree and Brendan sat next to me. He was pretty frisky that day and our walk had tired him just enough to still him for a few moments. Brendan has always been an observant soul, and on this day he cupped his hands into two fists, opening them just enough so that he could peer through his small hands like binoculars. He flopped down on his back into the mat of hayscented fern and suddenly he was still, studying the view above him. He was quiet for a moment, and I was enjoying the peace, when suddenly he cried out, “Dad, the tree is holding up the sky!”
At first I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I lied down on my back and looked up through the branches of the huge sugar maple. As I focused my eyes I could see the same thing he was seeing. There were gray branches, and on each branch there were hundreds of bright green leaves. The sun shown through the leaves creating a bright silhouette around each leaf, and behind each leaf was a brilliant blue sky. Indeed, it looked just like this mammoth tree was holding up the sky.
Brendan jumped up, outstretched his arms as far as they would go like the branches of a tree, and spread each finger on his hand like the branchlets that hold each leaf. “I am a mighty tree and I am holding up the sky!” he shouted. I jumped up, extending my arms, out spreading out my hands and shouted “I am a mighty maple, and I am holding up the sky!”
I then bent over, and lifted Brendan so that he could ride on my shoulders. He extended his arms towards the sky declaring he was a mighty tree holding up the sky over and over again.
About a decade ago, the tree lost its first large branch during a winter ice storm. That summer the leaves were poorly developed and pale. I knew that it was the beginning of the end, but I chose not to think about it. Last year, the tree lost two more large branches. You could see large areas of decaying wood where the branches had broken off the tree. A tree that had survived three hundred odd years of severe New England weather was now in very poor condition for no other reason than it was very, very old. It had survived the coldest winters of the 1700’s. It had survived the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. It had survived the severe droughts of the 1930’s and 1960’s, and like all living things it was about the meet the inevitable: the end of life.
About two weeks ago, during the night and after a large thunder storm, Maureen and I heard a very loud, extended creak, and then a loud, long crash. At the time I wasn’t sure where it came from, but it was very, very unsettling. Now I know that we witnessed the last gasp of life for this proud and magnificent tree.
I stand here at the remains of the sugar maple trunk. I look to the east through thick forest and shrubs. I look to the west where a young sugar maple stand abounds! I look to the north and south and I see a vibrant and healthy forest filled with life and hope. But there are no other trees in this part of the forest anywhere near the size of this once, mighty tree. And I wonder what will now hold up the sky.
Originally written in July of 2008