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, green caltrops that cause shrieks from the little kids walking barefoot to their sailing lessons.

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 “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.

Strawberry Wars and Earwigs

I’ve been a casual gardener for the last twenty years, sticking some petunias in a pot, zinnias in the bed, tomatoes in a cage, anything to keep the place from falling into total overgrown entropy — with some success but mostly due to my wife who has the veritable thumb verte.

I’m learning the hard way that there’s a few things you shouldn’t put in the ground because they will ruin your life. They include:

  • Morning glories. Pretty blue flowers that self-seed and before you know it start to crawl up the gutters and smother everything in their path. Never again.  Robert Stone wrote in Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties:

“Across the highway, on the far bank of La Honda Creek, were more morning glory vines. They were there because Kesey had taken his shotgun and filled the magazines with all the mystically named varieties of that flower’s seeds and fired them into the neighboring hillside.”

  • Bamboo. Haven’t planted it but have been told it is evil.
  • Horseradish: ditto.
  • Asparagus
  • English Ivy — this stuff will take down a tree, ruin your house and split boulders if you don’t go after it with a machete
  • Chinese lantern: I got this disaster plant as a gift and it is taking over. We’re talking Invasion of the Body Snatchers. My mission in life is to eradicate it but I fear it’s too late. Pray for me.

And now, I’m adding to the list: strawberries.

For it is strawberry season and my garden is speckled with  lots and lots of little ripening red balls of sweetness, just begging to be picked and sliced and scattered over my Cheerios. I planted two strawberry plants in the garden two summers ago, figuring, “hey, really fresh strawberries = good.” Then they spread. And spread. And spread. Now they own 25% of the bed. Yet I protected them with netting two weeks ago when the first berries appeared  so the birds wouldn’t peck at them, but lo and behold, whenever I see one that looks ripe for the picking and worm my hand under the net to snare it I discover each and every one has a bite mark. Not the green ones, not the half-ripe ones … no, the vandal responsible for the ruination of my crop waits until each berry is right at its peak of perfection and it gives it a little chomp then leaves the rest for me. The villain doesn’t finish one berry, no, it bites every berry.

Chipmunks are the issue but I can’t bring myself to exterminate them. Which gets me thinking about the psychological advantage squirrels and chipmunks have over their brethren the common rat. People don’t say “eek!” and climb on chairs when they see a chipmunk stuffing its cheeks with sunflower seeds under the bird feeders. But let a big grey, naked tailed rat appear and the exterminators are called in. It’s all about the tails and whether or not your species has been deemed cute by the cartoons. Chip and Dale and Alvin guaranteed the chipmunk would get immunity for life. No one can poison a chipmunk or set up a pellet-gun sniper nest to pick them off. But the rat… the rat gets Willard and that weird cartoon where a “nice” rat cooked French food in Paris. Rats equal the Black Death. Buboes and disease. Chipmunks equal Christmas carols sung in falsetto and good humored Disney mischief.

But my strawberries ….. the insolent little f%*^*^%er stood there the other day, ten feet from me, as if to say: “You looking at something bro? Come at me. Do you even lift?”

After I salvage what I can I’m ripping up the plants. I can’t stand the tragedy of watching 11 months of strawberry plants turn into a chipmunk vandalism project ever again. I know I can cut the bitten parts off and make strawberry jam …. but who has time?

I’m sticking to zinnias from now on.  (which are prone to being raped by earwigs, those delightful creepy insects that freaked me out as a kid because I assumed they were called earwigs because they crawled into one’s ear canal and made their homes in a bed of ear wax ((for more on insects in ears, see the account of African explorer James Hanning Speke who, according to our friends at Wikipedia: “Speke suffered severely when he became temporarily deaf after a beetle crawled into his ear and he tried to remove it with a knife.”)))

“One of these horrid little insects awoke me in his struggles to penetrate my ear, but just too late: for in my endeavour to extract him, I aided his immersion. He went his course, struggling up the narrow channel, until he got arrested by want of passage-room. This impediment evidently enraged him, for he began with exceeding vigour, like a rabbit at a hole, to dig violently away at my tympanum. The queer sensation this amusing measure excited in me is past description.

I felt inclined to act as our donkeys once did, when beset by a swarm of bees, who buzzed about their ears and stung their heads and eyes until they were so irritated and confused that they galloped about in the most distracted order, trying to knock them off by treading on their heads, or by rushing under bushes, into houses, or through any jungle they could find. Indeed, I do not know which was worst off. The bees killed some of them, and this beetle nearly did for me. What to do I knew not.

Neither tobacco, oil, nor salt could be found: I therefore tried melted butter; that failing, I applied the point of a penknife to his back, which did more harm than good; for though a few thrusts quieted him, the point also wounded my ear so badly, that inflammation set in, severe suppuration took place, and all the facial glands extending from that point down to the point of the shoulder became contorted and drawn aside, and a string of boils decorated the whole length of that region.

It was the most painful thing I ever remember to have endured; but, more annoying still, I could not masticate for several days, and had to feed on broth alone. For many months the tumour made me almost deaf, and ate a hole between the ear and the nose, so that when I blew it, my ear whistled so audibly that those who heard it laughed. Six or seven months after this accident happened, bits of the beetle—a leg, a wing, or parts of its body—came away in the wax.”

Tree Turds

Some ancestor had a thing for trees that drop crap on the ground. At one corner is a black cherry about 100 feet tall, pruned and ravaged by too many hurricanes but still hanging in there enough to drop a crop of inedible black gooey cherry-like things on the ground every fall. In the other corner is a chestnut tree — pretty in the spring when it blossoms into big white splendor that reminds me of Paris — but evil in the fall when it drops spiked nut casings on the sidewalk where I walk barefoot with my scull on the way to the water for a morning row.

In the back corner is a honey locust — a tree that by all rights should be dead given its gaunt and splintered appearance, but which throws off a prodigious number of seed pods that for lack of a more delicate simile look like big brown curly tree turds.

These things have been a fact of life around the old homestead my entire life — laying on the ground, feeding an occasional squirrel, rolling like maracas across the yard during a strong blow, but useless somehow, stiff, leatherlike, foot-long curlicues of tree feces with no discernible function other than to insure the spawning of more honey locusts.

I can think of no more unattractive tree for a family back yard than a honey locust. My friend Dan has one in his yard down the street and has hung a tire swing from it. Nice except for the satanic spikes that bristle from the trunk, waiting for some nine-year old kid to swing in and impale himself like a gore scene from Omen 666.

The turds are tenacious, and hang onto the branches long past the usual leaf-fall in October and November. They hang there still, rattling in the winter winds, cascading down at the rate of one a second during wet snow storms, littering the landscape as if a pack of neighborhood dogs convened and decided to use my lawn for a mass defecation ritual.

Yesterday I drafted (against his will, but bribed with a cheeseburger club sandwich) Junior into helping me rake up yet another cubic ton of tree poop. Of course it snowed last night and another bumper crop has fallen, but it was semi-nice to do yardwork in January and find an excuse to escape the stifling indoors.

I figured it out today …

… I slept an hour later than usual, woke to grey skies, ate bacon and eggs instead of beneficial oatmeal, did rapid-fire errands, stopped by the herring run just as the day turned awesome (I saw a big school of herring waiting in the top pool), installed a new mower blade and mowed the lawn, bought a six-pack of Offshore Ale, strung up my rod with a new lure, and hit the prettiest beach on Cape Cod for two hours of casting practice (no fish yet) in the setting sun before rushing home and catching the last five innings of a four-hour classic of a baseball game against Yankees (who also lost a nailbiter to the Sox the night before), cooking the entire time (rillettes, duck leg confit, vegetable stock, hummous) screaming at the TV in the kitchen, and scaring the dogs.

I congratulated my esteemed neighbor for doing the right thing, and she told me about an profile of your humble narrator in the Barnstable Enterprise.  I couldn’t find a copy, but someone dropped it by the house while I was running errands. I feel conspiciously auspicious. I’d point to it, but it’s not online and I am not in the mood for personal promotion.

A good friend dropped by and we got on the topic of seagull attacks and the time I watched a seagull poop into someone’s agape mouth aboard the Hyline ferry M/V Point Gammon when I worked on there as a deckhand in college.

Tomorrow I paint the bottom of the yacht and continue my gardening. My spring peas have sprouted and my arugula is showing itself.  The tulips have opened and the alcove reeks of hyacinths.

On a day like today it does not suck to be me.

Perils of bird feeding

I have a big bird feeding station set up under the grape arbor in the alcove on the southside of my house. I feed pretty much year round and as a result have a massive population of birds that visit throughout the seasons.

This morning I heard a boom,  followed immediately by my wife yelling for me to come look.

On the deck was this sad sight:

Now it sits in the brush pile, awaiting a critter to take it away, or this weekend’s annual burn pile cremation. I think I need to put up warning stickers in the windows. This hawk has been taking out robins in the alcove, but this morning it missed and it missed big. A shame, for it really is a magnificent bird and was very amazing to hold, still warm and pre-rigor mortis.

I’m pretty sure it is a sharp-shinned hawk.

Morning Glory

The hippies ate their seeds to induce hallucinations. I plant them because they are a ton of fun to watch in their climb to the skies along strings I tack into the ground and the side of the house every May. There’s always a little apprehension if they will grow – why Daphne and I worry is beyond me – as this year the place is buried in them. Last year’s crop must have dropped a ton of seeds into the flower beds as the morning glories are now approaching weed status. This morning they seemed at their peak, so around 6:30 am I lurked around with Uncle Fester’s Nikon d200 and snapped some shots.

They deliver nice shade, cutting back on the air conditioning bills and a verdant green light to the inside of the house during the day.

Fall planting and unplanting

Nice day to poke around the garden and try to get about 400 tulips, hyacinths, crocuses (crocii?) and garlic bulbs into the ground and take out, for winter storage, the giant dahlia tubers in the flower beds.

Tulips are a matter of late season brinksmanship with the local nurseries. During prime planting season — September through the middle of November — the going rate is about $8 for 25 tulips and  $6 for five hyacinths. Not a good rate, but around this time of year, when the shelves are still stocked with bulbs, the nurseries have to cut prices, and usually do about 50%.

Dahlias are big, showy, finale flowers — the closers of the flower growing season. Here’s my big orange ones from this October. I cut them back last weekend after a frost blacked their leaves, and dug them up with a spade this afternoon, washed off the dirt, and cut out some tubers for next season’s garden with a utility knife.

The garlic I found at the local feed and grain while picking up bird seed. The owner suggested I give it a try, so I bought two dozen seed cloves and put them in the ground this afternoon. Won’t realize the fruits of my labors until next summer.

All in all a good day in the dirt. My back will have something to say about it tomorrow, but this is a quasi-vacation week, and aside from some random calls, I’ll be back out in the yard later this week with rake, shovel, and wheelbarrow.

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