May 25, 2020

Memories of Trees Past

The old spruce tree in 2004

Janine Pineo Photo | The old spruce tree in 2004

• By Janine Pineo •

At 83, I stopped counting.

The lines near the edge were melded and blurred, fused into something indecipherable.

The smell of sawdust still hung in the air as I straightened up, tears filling my eyes.

I stared at the stump that used to be one of the most magnificent spruces I’d ever seen and then looked into sky from a spot where there always had been evergreen branches arching overhead.

Cool in summer, color in winter, this spruce was a part of me. I had no memory of life without this tree.

Now I do.

Although the tree rings indicated it was early in the 1900s, perhaps around the first world war when this spruce’s story began, I can account for only the last thirty-odd years of its life.

A row of spruce lined the eastern side of the driveway when we first moved in. Five in all, my mother said.

I only remember three set in a perfect line from roadside to garage.

The middle one came down in a destructive wind many years ago. It was the one that used to have a swing dangling from a branch. I think the rope was yellow, the seat wooden. I still have a piece of wood from that tree, a jagged, twisted length taken from where it broke.

Then there were just the two.

The one closest to the road was the tallest. It had twin tops, with a great notch about halfway down the trunk.

And that trunk. Compared to other trees on the lot, it was massive. I could wrap my arms about only half of the tree, and that was at five feet or so off the ground. The shoulders of the roots where the trunk met the earth were brawny. Roots radiated throughout the lawn under the canopy, their size enormous even well away from the trunk.

It was probably more than a decade ago when the beginning of the end began. Below the notch, a great crack appeared. Sap ran from it year after year.
We knew it didn’t bode well, but the tree seemed OK. Old, certainly, but nothing to cause alarm.

It continued to withstand high winds, brushes with the occasional hurricane remnants and even the legendary ice storm, when lesser trees in our yard took a beating.

Through it all, the spruce stood tall.

Then came the drought. For two years it was parched. I didn’t know it was the death knell.

Over the past year, something happened. Likely it was spruce budworm invading a tree weakened by age, drought and that old crack. All I know for certain is that while I was puttering about in late May, I looked up and realized the spruce was dying.

Given its prominent position in the yard, the tree could have fallen across the road and onto the utility lines or onto the house or the cars or the garage. I knew it had to come down.

The next couple of weeks we waited for the tree guy to come.

Every day I said goodbye.

For the first time, I looked up spruce in my Audubon tree book and discovered it was likely a red spruce given its height and diameter. The bark looked right, too.

I took pictures from every angle I could manage at any time of day.
In the mornings, when the first golden fingers of dawn brushed that lone, high treetop, I’d stand outside in the cold and watch the sunlight slowly reach the other trees as it illuminated farther down the trunk of the ravaged spruce.

As I worked in the garden, I’d stop and stare at the spruce rising over the rooftops, visible from nearly every corner of the yard. Where it had once been aflutter with birds, I began to notice that it was rare to see any bird perch amongst its branches.

Just a couple of days before the end, I sat down at dusk and watched the sun kiss it goodnight. I was seated on the stairs beside the garage, listening to the birds and frogs and a whisper of wind. The moon was rising behind the spruce’s branches.

How many times had I watched the moon drift upward through its branches?

Not enough.

It was like watching a painting unfold on a deep blue canvas as the moon floated past the black shadow of a tree, a wispy veil of clouds flowing over the nearly full disk.

I cried for what had been.

But mostly I cried for what I can never have again.

Only hours later, I watched this tree, this sentinel in my life, as it was cut down.

I wept.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in June 2004.