More Than a Tree

1,059 total words    

4 minutes of reading

When we moved into our house sixteen years ago, there were signs that the backyard’s towering silver maple was in decline. Little piles of sawdust at the base suggested carpenter ants were digging away at it from within. I knew that, one day, we’d probably have to cut the tree down. That day came on Wednesday, May 21st.

The maple was one of the yard’s most attractive features and the largest tree in the neighborhood. It was a haven, and a hub of activity, for the biodiversity attracted to its shade and resources.

The tree’s loss has been harder than I ever imagined. I am grieving, not just for the tree, but for the soaring, scurrying, sprouting, and singing it brought to our yard.

Carpenter ant

This vitality included the carpenter ants that contributed to its demise; the colony may have contained thousands of individuals at its peak. One day, while planting flowers around the tree, something skimmed my face. Brushing little flecks of wood from my cheek, I looked up to see a dozen black ants bustling around the entrance to a tree hole, dislodging wood shavings as they worked. Though I couldn’t see inside, I knew they were excavating the interior to build nesting and living chambers. The resulting labyrinth of tunnels can weaken even the largest tree trunks. I both admire and lament the ants’ capabilities.

Over time, the ants, and severe weather, took their toll. Large storms in recent years sent branches as thick as my leg plummeting to the ground. After consulting arborists, we decided the tree needed to come down before it crushed us or our unsuspecting neighbors.

It was a responsible decision, but a painful one. I feel the absence of our backyard community intensely.

Downy woodpecker

I miss the birds that found food and shelter in the tree. Nuthatches regularly hopped along branches, foraging for insects. Rapid drumming sounds resonated through the yard, heralding the work of a Downy, Hairy, or Red-Bellied Woodpecker. Many other species of birds used the tree as a stopover, or a seasonal way station, including finches, sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, and hawks.

There were other, less obvious inhabitants, too. It was a bustling high-rise of arthropod diversity, regularly housing beetles and spiders; in 2007, it teemed with periodic cicadas.

Cicadas

The tree’s community extended beyond animals. Some fallen branch fragments looked like works of art, adorned with ruffled lichens and fungi. After rainy periods, I watched for mushrooms to surface along the tree’s roots.

Perhaps the most painful loss for me was a family of grey squirrels. An ample tree hole, at a height and angle unreachable to climbing raccoons and cats, provided them with a safe place to live and raise young. In early summer, my husband and I were often charmed by the sight of a new generation of squirrels chasing one another through the tree’s branches and across the roof of our garage.

Grey squirrel. Photograph by Gavin Van Horn

Instead of removing the tree to ground level, we left about fifteen feet of trunk standing, preserving the grey squirrels’ nest hole. Not surprisingly, the five squirrels (two adults, three young) fled in panic as the chain saw came near. I’ve since seen the squirrels in a nearby yard, so I know they’re okay. But they haven’t yet returned. Perhaps they, like me, find the yard too exposed and unprotected without the sheltering branches.

Since the tree has been gone, birds are also less common in our yard, and in the neighborhood as a whole, I believe. I haven’t heard a nuthatch’s nasal hank—a call I can imagine coming from an appealing cartoon character—in many days.

I consider how the loss of one tree has affected the network of relationships of our small area, and shudder to think of the impact when a large patch of rainforest in Indonesia is burned, or a prairie in Illinois is paved over for a road. The losses to biodiversity seem unimaginable. I wonder why people don’t mourn these losses more, myself included. Is it because we don’t see them up close? Or are they too overwhelming to contemplate for very long? Perhaps we all need to fiercely love a tree to know why and how and to whom its absence matters.

Intellectually, I’ve understood the importance of maintaining habitat for plants and animals in built environments. But now I feel it, too. So, I’m trying to turn my thoughts forward. My husband and I are contemplating what kind of tree we might plant in our maple’s place, as well as other things we can do to create better native habitat.

Mushrooms

In the meantime, I take comfort knowing that fungi, lichens, and arthropods still call the remaining tree stump home. But—please forgive a mammal-centric moment—I’m saddened that baby lichens don’t romp, at least not like squirrels do. The remaining creatures will help the tree complete its life cycle, assisting the decay until it is a snag in which more life can shelter. I find it elegantly fitting that carpenter ants may aid this process as well—they’ve been doing so for years.

The day after the tree was taken down, I saw a lone carpenter ant crawling along the stump. It seemed lost. Its home, and most of its colony, was gone. I feel sad for both of us. The ant can’t comprehend the role its species played in the demise of its environment. But we can. We can understand our impact on nature, but we act like ants on autopilot, unthinkingly devouring the environment on which we depend. And so we continue to weaken our tree.

I recently visited Google Earth to recall our yard as it once was, with the house and garage partially cloaked by the tree’s canopy. I think of the solace I found, and the wildlife I watched, sitting in dappled sunlight under that canopy. The next satellite photo taken will show the yard without the tree. Will the yard seem barren to an impartial observer? To me it will—because I know that more than a tree is gone.

I’m determined to change that. I’ve learned first-hand how important a tiny parcel can be for maintaining local biodiversity, and for maintaining my well-being, too. Part of my healing will come from the process of creating new habitat. The silver maple stump will be there as I work.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs by Francie Muraski-Stotz.

  • Francie Muraski-Stotz

    After receiving a master's degree in Evolutionary Biology from The University of Chicago, Francie Stotz spent 16 years developing exhibitions at The Field Museum. As a freelance writer/developer, she has continued translating science for the general public.

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