Elegy to a Tree

I am always amazed at nature’s persistence. Today I heard–barely!–a catbird belting out his repertoire over the highway’s roar and I pondered, not for the first time, our impact on the natural world which somehow continues to struggle on.

It hasn’t been a good spring for trees around here. Our neighbors cut down my favorite apple and our elm appears doomed. I discovered the apple tree’s demise on my way home from school one day, thinking about this and that, when I turned the corner and saw.

It was lying on bare ground next to where it once grew. Its flowers, which were opening, were caught in what I might anthropomorphize as mid-scream, a la Edvard Munch. “No!” I wailed and hit the steering wheel. This was an old tree grafted to two varieties, one russet, one big red sweet apples that were perfect even without spray. The family couldn’t remember what they were. I picked a couple of bushels last fall and never imagined the tree wouldn’t make it to next spring. But there it was, after 60 or so years, ripped out by the neighbor’s backhoe.


Image     Image

I hopped on my bike when I got home. Maybe I could salvage some scionwood? The neighbor said, “Sure” and looked at me a little strangely. When I asked whether there had been a problem with the tree he said, “Problem? No. I was just fixin’ the lawn.” I managed not to go after him with my Felco pruners.

I relayed the story to my apple-grafting friend, who also ran by to collect wood. But a little research later, we realized it was a lost cause. You can’t successfully graft after the tree has broken dormancy. I was left with a vase full of apple blossoms, their last stand, and the mystery of why a family in the tree business–they make maple syrup–would have so little appreciation for another tree, just as it was about to bloom, why people who depend on nature for their living would have so little regard for it.

And then I discovered our elm tree. It was lush this spring, the picture of health. At least from one side. On closer inspection its leaves were curling and crisping, disease spreading from limb to limb. A quick internet search revealed the dreaded culprit: Dutch elm disease, which has felled so many of the great trees. But ours was a hybrid, not supposed to be susceptible to this killer. Alas, it didn’t get the memo. Perhaps we will plant an apple tree in its place, though I doubt I’ll be able to match the one from down the road. That one lies dead on a burn pile in the pasture.

After all of this destruction, I decided to focus on what’s here. What’s here is an American bittern. He showed up this spring honking unseen in a wetland. I could hear him across the cornfield, though I never expected to see him. But it seems this bittern likes to dine out. We started noticing a brown bird, not quite a hawk, landing awkwardly and disappearing into the hay in front of our house. We tried to make him into a northern harrier, which we sometimes see here, but he has no white patch on the rump. I never had my binoculars handy when the bittern appeared so I could never positively i.d. it. Ditto the several times I saw it sail away over the treeline heading for another wetland buffet.

I consulted my favorite birding website http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_bittern/id which confirmed that bitterns are supposed to be secretive, supposed to hide in the cattails and stay put. Not this fellow. He appears to like a bit more variety in his diet. Finally one night I caught him with my binoculars as he landed, all gangly heron feet, before he disappeared. Yup a bittern. And then I saw him flying home this morning, yellow legs stretched out behind. He’s a bit of a mystery, our bittern.

And so nature carries on. Someone cuts down a tree, we plant a new one. Bobolinks call from rolled up hay bales which sit in place of their nests. Killdeer contend with plowing, planting and spraying in the cornfield. It’s a wonder we have any birds left at all. And then a new, unexpected bird shows up, offering a reminder that nature somehow carries on, or tries to, and we are glad.









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