By Ivo Krupka
When the large, red, spray-painted X appeared on the base of our magnificent silver maple last fall, we knew that its long life would soon be cut short – literally. The tree was one of the huge maples which, together with mates on both sides of Powell Avenue, form a splendid arcade for most of the year.
We don’t know exactly how old the tree was because the saws that cut it down obscured the rings that would have revealed its age. It was already huge when we first moved into our house more than 55 years ago. In fact, it was probably bigger than when it was cut down. The 1998 ice storm decimated a good third of its branches. And not long after, all its roots facing the street were severed at the trunk when excavation began for new sewer and water lines.
Whether these insults led our tree to develop many large burls, mainly low on the trunk, is hard to say. Woodpeckers, ants and other insects probably played their parts. And squirrels and birds seldom missed an opening to create a home. Just last year, we even had a family of wood ducks use our tree as an incubator for a raft of ducklings.
It seems clear that, aside from its huge stature, the many burls were the main attraction for neighbours and passersby. Kids stopped to play around the trunk, gaze at it in awe and love it. Newman, a beautiful, big, friendly, beast of dog regularly nibbled bits of curling bark at its base after some ecstatic writhing on our clovered lawn.
City of Ottawa forestry experts and crews worked hard for decades to prolong our tree’s life. Since the main limbs started low on its trunk, City crews strung steel cables high up on the main branches to prevent them splitting at the base. They also pruned the tree regularly to minimize the risk of falling branches.
There have been some close calls in recent years. During extensive renovations to a neighbour’s house, a large branch, torn off in a brisk wind, almost ripped off a small balcony. Fortunately, none of the workers who routinely walked under the balcony was there when the branch hit. Also fortunately, the balcony was going to be removed anyway. Last May, the derecho tore off a modest but still potentially lethal branch that dented a neighbour’s car parked in front of our house.
That last accident seems to have condemned our tree. City forestry experts came out to inspect the tree and discuss its future with us. Councillor Shawn Menard was very helpful in working with the city and communicating with us about the future of our tree. Ultimately, the news was bad: the tree had to go, “probably sometime before the snow flies.”
When the big red X appeared, something truly charming happened. Neighbours and passersby of all ages stopped to chat and express their condolences as I raked its last leaves. Several cards were pinned to the tree, some from neighbours and others we don’t know. One began: “Dear mother tree, you were in my life from before I was born, and always will be remembered as a wise and strong tree. . .” All expressed love and sadness at our tree’s imminent death. The Glebe Report printed a photo of one of our tree’s young admirers trying to hug its huge girth.
Shortly after seven on the morning of the day before Christmas Eve, the crews began their work. The noise of chainsaws and the big chipper filled the air most of the day.
Just before the final cut, I asked a man who seemed to be the foreman, if he could leave several feet of the trunk above ground. The foreman hesitated, but then said, “Well, it’s almost Christmas, it’ll be a present.” We are immensely grateful to him.
We have one large maple left struggling to survive on the other side of our lawn. We’re sure that the two trees communicated in their mysterious ways throughout the years. What wisdom and sustenance did our deceased tree pass on?
We have decorated the stump with Christmas tree lights and a planter. Next spring, we plan to transform the trunk into a floral beauty like the one in the accompanying photo.
Ivo Krupka has lived in the house on Powell Avenue for more than 55 years.