Constable: Beloved trees branch into a collection of stories
In 30 years of writing columns for this newspaper, I'm probably responsible for sending a small forest to the paper mill. The cruel irony is that I love trees. And I love the "Tree-mendous Tree Story" campaign launched on Arbor Day (Friday for those of you not keeping score at home) by the Morton Arboretum in Lisle and the Chicago-based conservation organization Openlands. Their website, tree-stories.org, asks people to submit stories about their trees, and experts select ones that make the cut.
Grayslake's Janie Ward wrote one of the first tree stories to crack the list. In 1993, she and her husband, Mark, moved into a house in a new subdivision built on the site of an old horse farm.
"The house we chose had a beautiful oak tree," says Ward, 62, adding that arborists estimated the majestic tree was 200 years old. "It shaded the back of the house and the yard."
On the day of their closing, she noticed a small number tag the village affixed to trees saved during the construction. "It was number 666," Ward says. Aware of the biblical reference to that being the number of the devil, she embraced the legend.
"Oh, that's the devil tree," Ward told family and friends. "It's going to fall on our house someday, but we're just happy to have it now."
For 20 years, the tree's canopy provided shade in the summer, and served as a home to generations of birds, squirrels and raccoons. Even in winter, the bare branches "made beautifully eerie shapes as the full moon shown down on the snow-covered yard," Ward writes.
In 2013, the main trunk split, and the tree couldn't be saved. Having been married in 1980 in the rose garden at the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park, birthplace of Arbor Day and the Nebraska boyhood home of Morton Arboretum founder Joy Morton, the couple turned to the arboretum for advice.
They planted a Marmo Freeman's maple, which should bring similar joy to new generations who occupy that home.
Waiting for a tree to grow can be frustrating, but rewarding, says Linda Scherzer, 70, whose tree story also cracks the arboretum tree-mendous list. In 2002, when she was living in Hoffman Estates, she bought trees from the Arbor Day Foundation.
"They sent me this bag of 10 sticks," remembers Scherzer, who said the product fell far short of the saplings she had seen at local nurseries. "Even the young stuff looks like something, but these didn't look like anything."
She planted them anyway, and five survived. When she moved to South Elgin in 2003, "I took two of them with me and planted them both in my yard," Scherzer says. "They were about a foot tall with a couple of little branches, but they were definitely not sticks anymore." Now they are nearly 12 feet tall.
My favorite tree from the family farm where I grew up is an old maple. We don't know how old, but when my dad first started driving in the 1930s, his parents wouldn't let him park under the tree for fear it would fall down in a stiff breeze. When I was a kid, my sister Sally's collie, Taffy, would sleep in the hollow part of the trunk.
The great tree still stands, and we don't restrict any of our sons from parking under the branches.
As a homeowner, I'm desperately clinging to our old mulberry tree. The tree, too old to produce berries, leans at such a sharp angle that our three sons were able to climb it without using their hands. They would run up the trunk and sit on the massive branch that also held a porch swing.
When we built a fence between our yard and the alley, we left a space for the low-hanging branch. Last year, that branch slipped low enough to start crushing the fence so we had it amputated. We're entertaining thoughts of a replacement tree.
"You'll never have big trees in your yard if you don't start planting now," advises Scherzer, who repeats the adage from her late husband, Tony. "Plant something. Just plant something."
After all, you're not just planting trees. You're planting stories.