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The tree

December 24, 2011
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

I broke into the file of old twenty-something news columns from the 1980's recently (although it really seems like I wrote those just a short time ago). There were a few that I held out to possibly share again. This is one of those columns that I wish to share this week. I originally wrote it in 1988.

From Webster's Dictionary - Tree (tre/): a perennial plant having a permanent woody, self-supporting main stem or trunk.

Textbook definitions do not begin to adequately describe a tree. A tree is far more than just a woody plant. The temperatures and drought that we have been experiencing help me appreciate the old boxelder tree in our backyard. That's right that "good-for-nothing, homely, almost cursed" boxelder tree in so many people's eyes is really a kind gentle loving friend that cradles my children's treehouse in one arm and holds their swing in another. At the same time, it shades the sandbox and picnic table below.

As I sit at that table I realize that this tree has become the center of attraction in our backyard. Not only for our family but for many other forms of life, as well. The tree offers food and shelter for a wide variety of creatures. Small animals make their home among the roots and in the hollows of the trunk. Insects hide in the cracks of the bark. Birds come to feast on the insects and some stay to nest among the branches.

This tree is an apartment building of sorts and just like many human apartment buildings, some tenants stay for long periods of time while others don't. As tenants move out, they are replaced with new ones.

When the tree's buds open in the spring, it produces more leaves than it needs. The "extra" ones are food for things like caterpillars and other insects. The blossoms and seeds of the tree provide food for countless creatures. Even when the tree begins to rest for the winter, the fallen leaves are not wasted. Earthworms mix the rotting leaves with the soil. Robins in turn come to eat the worms. This tree in my backyard is a community of life.

No man and no tree can live forever. Death for either can be slow or quick. It might come as a lightning strike that turns the sap into steam bursting the tree apart in a mighty explosion. Or it might come ever so slowly as is the case with our backyard friend. My grandfather told me that a boxelder tree spends 40 to 50 years living and another 40 to 50 years dying. A glance skyward into the canopy reveals several dead branches. The old boxelder is slipping away.

You're not all that pretty old friend. Your leaves don't turn brilliant orange, or red in the fall. You offer no sweet fruit for me to enjoy. You wouldn't even yield fine lumber for my workshop. But I know that I am not the first person to appreciate you. My home was once a country schoolhouse and the backyard a playground. The laughter of my children is not the first to ring among your leaves. The Northern Oriole that hung its nest from your branch was preceded by countless generations of orioles before it. You've earned your keep old friend.

That was written in 1988. As a postscript to the story, the arm that held the tire swing gave way in a windstorm a few years ago. A portion of the top was lost this summer to the same fate. Much as I hate to see it, the old boxelder tree is reaching the end of that 40 to 50 year dying cycle my grandfather spoke about. I know I should break out the chainsaw but I can't bring myself to do it. Not yet.



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