Loss of grand tree is a reminder to be good to them

Erin Schanen

My favorite tree fell over a couple weeks ago. It was a majestic American beech (Fagus grandifolia) that towered 50 feet in the air and had the most glorious smooth, silver-gray trunk and branches that gave it an appearance reminiscent of an elephant’s leg.

It was the first tree I noticed on the property when we looked at it before buying our house, and I delighted in looking up into its canopy at all times of year to see the architecture of the tree backlit by the blue sky. A curved path through the garden was designed to open up directly to view the stately beauty.

The tree fell in the most unassuming way, apparently just tipping over on a windless but sweltering evening. In fact, despite sitting in the house only about 100 feet from it (a couple tree lengths as it turns out), its fall was drowned out by the whir of the air conditioner and I originally didn’t even realize it had fallen. I am sadly now well prepared to answer the question of what happens if a tree falls and no one hears it.

It also managed to fall in the perfect direction, providing just a glancing blow to a nearby younger cousin beech, but missing gardens, not to mention the house and all people and pets. If I thought trees possessed logic, I’d thank it for being so considerate.

The fall exposed a badly decomposed trunk, far worse than we had expected based on what we could see when it was standing. Since its canopy was so healthy looking, I assumed it was mostly well and we’d enjoy its shade for the rest of our lifetimes, or close to it.

I have no idea how old it was, as the hollow trunk afforded no opportunity to count rings or anything of the sort. American beech trees can live up to 400 years, and based on an internet calculation of the diameter at chest height multiplied by six, I estimate it might have been close to 200 years old. It’s probably safe to assume the Internet is wrong and to stick with a loose definition of “pretty old.”

I have a good idea of what may have contributed to the demise of the tree, which stood at the end of a septic mound system installed in the early 1990s before we owned the house. This placement, which would have been difficult to avoid, led to a large amount of soil being piled on top of the roots, slowly suffocating the tree.

Trees grow slowly and they die slowly, and often the cause of death goes back many years, and in this case potentially three decades. It’s a good reminder to be good to our trees. Plant them with the soil level at the spot where the roots start flaring from the trunk, avoid mowing over sensitive surface roots and burying roots under soil or a foot of bark mulch that will become soil eventually.

Trees are tough, which is why they continue to stand for longer than they probably should with a hollow trunk, but they aren’t infallible. They don’t live forever, but they can live many lifetimes if we look out for their best interests.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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