Moss creeps up the massive white oak, gentling its craggy bark. This centenarian protects our farmhouse from summer’s glare. A black snake once lived beneath its gnarliest root, says an old man who visited here as a grandchild. Previous owners damaged the tree while building the latest addition. We hire an arborist, juice the soil, mulch, amputate withered branches, worry every year is its last. Old enough to know loss, we try to prepare ourselves for living without the oak’s generous canopy, to imagine how the light will change, how we’ll still be here but nothing will ever seem the same.
Red-bellied woodpeckers tap for insects, excavate nesting holes in rotting limbs. Chickadees and nuthatches follow suit in the oak’s tenderest places. Bluebirds take up residence in abandoned cavities, pluck caterpillars from the mulch below for hatchlings. Large fungi bloom about the base. The tree is now so truncated its parts resemble a fingerless glove. Squirrels no longer have room to build their leafy spreads. Hawks have lost their loftiest perch. Arborists call this risk mitigation. Risk is calculated as: probability of tree failure x consequences to people or objects. Summer evenings, fireflies float and flash their mating calls in the remaining crown.
Sometimes during the worst night storms: bam! A weakened branch hits the tin roof. Startled awake, we’ll lie there wondering: does the old oak so close to our house need to come down? Next time, will the giant topple, flatten us as we sleep? Will a bevy of emergency vehicles whoop and strobe as onlookers shake their heads at our tree-hugging foolishness? Certainly, there will be a neighborly gathering of chainsaws to divide, plunder the remains. Wood stoves are a beast to feed, and everyone knows white oak burns the hottest.