Woodsman, Spare That Tree

Behind the boat shed, on the property line between my good neighbors Phil and Beth, looming over the roof of the sail loft and the far back corner of my property, stands a towering honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos). I’ve written about my love-hate affair with this same tree before ( when I ranted about the “tree turds” the old timer manages to produce and drop onto the back yard each and every fall.

Honey Locust seed pods. Take one of these and repeat several hundred times every windstorm and you learn to despise these tree turds.

I have no idea how old the tree is, but despite the mess it makes, I’ve always been fond of it, respecting its survival instincts when nearly every other tree on the property has succumbed to winter gales or late summer hurricanes at one time or another. I also suspect whomever planted it was a serious tree connoisseur, because elsewhere on the perimeter of the property once grew a majestic black cherry and an English chestnut. The cherry tree, which gave up the ghost on Christmas morning 2017 during a sudden whiteout snow squall, dropped black fruit over the yard every summer which managed to stain bare feet purple and induce shrieks of horror in my wife when she discovered someone’s purple footprints tracked all over the rugs. The chestnut, , drops spiked nuts all over the sidewalk, little green caltrops that cause the little kids walking barefoot to their sailing lessons to shriek in.

According to Wikipedia a honey locust is:

  • a relatively short-lived tree with a life span of 120 years. That means this tree was probably planted around 1900 or later. I’m guessing by the same person who thought it wise to plant the cherry and the chestnut.
  • considered an invasive species — especially in Australia where everything not from Australia goes root and goes beserk
  • used in new developments and on compromised land without a steady water supply to provide fast shade.
  • normally is covered with wicked thorns that can be turned into primitive needles or fishing hooks.

My tree doesn’t have the thorns, but it does have the little leaves and the seed pods of the species. My good friend has a honey locus in his yard, just as big as mine, but his has a rope swing hanging from one branch, and the trunk is studded with the dreadful thorns like some psycho horror movie tree that can talk and impales misbehaved children who dare to ride its swing.

Shading the sail loft

After Phil and Beth moved in a couple years ago and finished restoring the houuse, the locust dropped a big branch onto their driveway, barely missing a parked car. Phil was astonished by the tree turds and how they seemed to keep dropping in an endless supply every time the wind blew hard or a storm swept through.

Last summer, after nearly decapitating myself taking a fallen Norway Maple off of the roof of my garage, I gave up any delusions of being a competent tree surgeon and called a professional, a local outfit called Treefrog. I asked them to get the maple off the garage, to finish removing the old cherry, another dead maple at the end of the driveway, and to please give the honey locus and the chestnut tree some love by cleaning out the deadwood and giving them a good going over.

The foreman on the job took me aside when his crew was finishing up and told me that the honey locust was the most beautiful specimen he had ever seen. I was glad he gave it a bill of good health.

Then one day this spring Phil and I conferred on matters related to our property line [insert the tired cliche of good fences make good neighbors here] and he floated the idea of cutting the honey locust down because of the risk it posed to his cars and the atrocious mess the tree turds caused.

Suddenly I got all sentimental about the tree. I told Phil what the expert told me, that the tree was healthy and an amazing specimen, but I had to put my usual reactionary aversion to change aside and agree with his reasons for cutting it down. My wife wasn’t a fan. She isn’t a tree lover and prefers open sunny spaces to dark, shady ones. But she knew my tree hugging fondness made me emotional about seeing it vanish.

My “woodsman, spare that tree” lament went something like this: “That thing is twice as old as we are. It survived at least six hurricanes, including 1938 and 1944 when very few trees in Cotuit survived. Squirrels and chipmunks crave the seed pods and sit on the fence eating them like cobs of corn. It shades the site of the first Masonic temple in Cotuit — my great-great grandfather’s sail loft, and has shaded four generations of Chatfields and Churbucks during summer chowder parties and other celebrations. Now it’s going to die.”

I made the case for keeping the tree, but I was resigned to see it go. Look at the bright side I told myself. No more tree turds. No more worries about English Ivy choking the bark of the trunk. No crushed cars or pedestrians. More sun for the rose bushes, less of a threat to the dilapidated boat shop and sail loft.

But deep down inside I was getting more sad about the tree than I expected. I’ve never planted a tree. I’m not a big celebrator of Arbor Day and I am quick to pull out the chain saw to do away with a shitty tree like a pernicious maple trying to undermine the foundation of the house. But this tree had a hold on me. I stare at its branches through the skylight over the bed in the winter. In the summer, when its leaves finally fill in (later than other trees), the entire canopy makes a soothing susurration in the breeze. I started to mourn it, staring at it all this past spring like I was saying goodbye to it.

On Monday of this week Phil called to let me know the tree service was coming the next day to take out a shattered maple and take care of the honey locust. Yesterday their trucks backed down the driveway, a man in a hard hat ascended in a bucket truck, and by 10 am his chain saw was making short work of the maple.

I took a few farewell pictures of the tree, recalling John Cheever’s beautiful description in his novel Oh What a Paradise It Seems of Connecticut’s former elm trees before the Dutch blight killed them all off in the 1960s.:

“He was old enough to remember when the horizons of his country were dominated by the beautiful and lachrymose wine-glass elm tree and when most of the bathtubs one stepped into had lion’s claws. “

I was sad. “Woodsman spare that tree,” I muttered to myself as I went to work and avoided going outside the rest of the day to witness the felling of the tree. I wanted to put it out of my mind and vowed to plant another tree, maybe not a honey locust, but the same impulse that makes people rush out and buy a puppy after an old beloved dog passes away.

The end of the maple, the honey locust stand on death row to the left.

Late yesterday afternoon Phil called. His tree surgeon had said the same thing my guy said — the tree was special and shouldn’t be cut down. Beth agreed. Phil agreed, and with true tears in my eyes I stepped out of the boat shop and looked up at my old friend and smiled. It sports a few steel cables in its canopy and some deadwood is gone, but it still stands and hopefully will stand for a long time to come.

Still standing after all these years.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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