— Ellen DeGeneres
TV host and comedian
(b. Jan. 26, 1958)
Word that Cleveland hunters citywide are splitting time this weekend searching for two treasures — the backyard’s prize Easter Egg and the town’s biggest tree — reminded me of my last tree-hugging experience.
It came a couple of years ago with the giant maple out back of the house. It’s a big tree, but not the community’s biggest. It’s an old tree, but not the town’s oldest. It’s a pretty tree, but well ... probably not the prettiest.
But that’s OK. It’s my tree. And that makes it the best tree.
Technically, I guess my wife owns half the towering stick of timber, but I’m not sure which half. In the summer, she likely stakes claim to the shade-bearing crown. But in the autumn when that canopy comes tumbling down, it’s all mine. A plight afflicting rake-bearing husbands everywhere, we call it the American Dream.
Though I hold a personal affection for most trees, my love is not unconditional. Like presidential good-guy George Washington, I’ve let the ax slip on occasion.
White House legend tells us George put the chop to a cherry — not the best town for such a bold move. Yet, the guy was elected and re-elected. Must have been some poor memories among the revolutionaries, or a colony filled with forgiving hearts.
I plead guilt as well. But my targets are normally what some call “garbage” or “junk” trees. They grow out of nowhere, bear no fruit and drop no rainbow-colored leaves in October. Even their bark has little character. And in the thicket of a forest floor, they gravitate toward any light that peeks through the brush. Over years of unrestrained maturity, most will lean and some even grow parallel to the ground.
In a word, they’re really yucky trees. Ugly trees. I’m sure they have a name, but we’ve never been formally introduced.
This winter I felled a legion of them in a woods-cleansing project near the house. Hey, the outside chill was invigorating. The poison oak and poison ivy lay dormant. The snakes were still holed up snug as a bug in some hidden rug. And I was looking for a diversion — any diversion — to keep me off the streets, out of the stores and away from the TV.
In my world, such a pastime of manicuring Mother Nature is just the ticket to outdoor happiness. Besides, in the gaps created by this selected loss of undesirable trees, I will plant their desirable brethren. In summers ahead, it will become a pretty forest and frolicking wildlife will dance across thick fields of green — the same manmade meadows of which I will now mow ... every week ... without exception ... with no let-up ... simmering in the heat ... sweltering in the humidity ... cursing my midwinter enthusiasm ... all the while watching the calendar for the approach of a new October and the stunting of this blasted new growth.
Elton John called it lyrically the “Circle of Life.”
But about that aforementioned giant maple, the one in the backyard which I embraced some time ago? It wasn’t necessarily a hug of affection; rather, a desperate cling for life.
In my age group, men don’t climb big trees. It is a sport best left to the younger of mind, heart and frame. Call it a form of boyhood Vision Quest, if you will. But on this occasion, instinct trumped common sense. Here’s my story.
For an untold number of months, a broken limb lay sprawled across neighboring branches near the top of my maple’s crown. It was dead. It was ugly. Its brown leaves teased me from towering heights above.
Surely a gust of wind, like the one that broke it, would toss it to the ground in due time. None came.
Surely the laws of gravity would take precedent and send it plummeting to the earth below. But these were lawless times.
Surely an overfed squirrel heavy with acorns would scamper across its length with a weight and attitude sufficient to break it free from this treetop bondage. Either the rodents were dieting or the season’s nuts were in scarce supply.
Surely that intimidating hawk from parts unknown eventually would light upon the limb’s broken end and send it spiraling to my awaiting ax. The bird of prey was a frustrating no-show.
One Saturday afternoon in midsummer as I stood below the great maple, my gaze affixed to the brown leaves of the dead limb, I cringed at the awful contrast in color between the offending branch and the surrounding green.
In this mindset, I made my decision.
No longer would I await the help of wind and gravity and squirrels and hawks. I would take this towering bull by the horns. And I — man — would climb it.
Thunder sounded in the distance. Had I looked down, I would have realized it was little more than the knock of my trembling knees.
Next week, we will scale this tree together in shared quest for that offendingly dead limb.
In the meantime, Cleveland residents planning to submit an entry in the city’s “Big Old Tree” contest have only a day remaining. Your deadline is Monday. So after scarfing down that last Easter egg, grab a tape measure and go find a tree ... a BIG tree. If it’s big enough, you could be $500 richer. Contact Cleveland Urban Forester Dan Hartman for more info. But hurry!