Happy Arbor Day from a guy who considers himself a true tree hugger! Sure, my wife and I do our best to protect the environment and stave off climate change — a topic that’s become too tiresome to debate with flat earthers who think it’s just a theory. Well, so are gravity and relativity, and scientists proved both frighteningly true at Los Alamos in 1945.
When we built our new house 12 years ago, we installed roof-top solar panels and a Rinnai tankless water heater. We also garden organically, use a compost bin, plant wildflowers as pollinators, and recycle. Much to our neighbors’ chagrin, we don’t have lawn service and wear the myriad dandelions on our lawn as badges of honor. Too, we don’t mow every bit of our two plus acres to allow critters places to live. We’ve done all this simply because it makes sense, saves money, and we don’t care if our property won’t be mistaken for a golf course. Also, occasionally we’ll catch a smile on the face of our St. Francis statue.
But it’s the trees I’m most proud of. Our housing development was once a dairy farm, so the only trees we had on the lot were a single maple planted by the builder and a decidedly mixed bunch in an ancient hedgerow. We systematically began planting almost 90 more of them, from nut and fruit trees to ornamentals. We grew their ranks thanks to a “going out of business” sale at Carroll Gardens, wispy seedlings sent through the mail in exchange for donations to the Arbor Day Foundation, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources tree sale, family members, and a local tree farm.
When we first moved in, we had some dead trees removed from the hedgerow. I betrayed my city boy naiveté by asking one of the workers, a local, who he thought planted the hedgerow. He gave me a quizzical look, laughed, and answered, “The birds.” When I showed puzzlement, he urged me to walk through the hedgerow and look for barbed wire and locust posts, explaining that a fence to pen in the cows had once run through the center of the trees and brambles. Birds sit on fences after feeding on seeds; then Mother Nature takes over. Voila! In time, you have a hedgerow. This simple explanation also clarified why we had so many wild cherry and mulberry trees surrounded by wild raspberries, bittersweet, and porcelain berry. We did have one green apple tree in the mix. Its pillowy blossoms are glorious in the spring, and the tree produces applesauce-worthy fruit.
A great tonic for me is to walk among the trees we planted. We transported some in the back of our Mercury van, and now one fine oak towers over 20 feet. Whether wild dogwood or chestnut oak, green ash or red oak, pin oak or pear tree, redbud or maple, I consider them all good friends and glory in their budding out each April and May.
Growing trees is not without its hazards and disappointments. I’ve lost some seedlings to rabbits and groundhogs, and deer and disease destroyed six of the 18 evergreens in our mini-Christmas tree farm. Once the tender, terminal bud at the tip of the tree is gone, you are gifted with an ornamental shrub whose ascent has been permanently stunted.
One brave Leyland cypress battled the antlers of a buck deer in rutting season, came up the loser, and never recovered. Just recently, the lace-like lower limbs of a Hinoki became a deer salad bar. The poor tree now looks like it suffered a bad day at barber school. I consulted with the owner of the nursery that planted it, and he advised me to feed the tree with fertilizer spikes and hang small bars of soap on its branches. He’s found success with this deterrent because deer dislike soap’s perfume-like scent. Fingers crossed, though the festooned tree is now something only a Grinch could love.
It is fitting that Arbor Day falls so close to Earth Day. All creation is interconnected in the fragile web of life. Aside from feeding us and other creatures with their fruits and nuts and providing shelter — whether directly for nests or indirectly for frame houses — trees perform many invaluable functions. They absorb carbon dioxide, store carbon, deter erosion, cool houses in the summer, and buffer them from wind in the winter. Perhaps Joyce Kilmer had it right that “only God can make a tree,” but we can all surely help our common biosphere by planting and nurturing some of these friends along the way.
Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.