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Family Tree

Once, the giant silver maple that shades our house was a sapling.

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Once, the giant silver maple that shades our house was a sapling. Our local tree surgeon says it would have been around when my husband’s great-grandmother sat on her nearby front porch and listened to the roar of cannons at Gettysburg, 50 miles away as a bird flies. In the 1860s, my arboreal éminence grise, now slightly stooped but still towering two stories above our farmhouse, was as young and erect as the freshest Civil War volunteers in their blue and gray uniforms.

The old gent has outlived them all.

In my fanciful moments, I picture a young girl in a brown calico dress, digging a small hole, tucking in the tiny whip and carefully patting soil around its puny trunk, no thicker than her thumb. But chances are that Nature itself planted the tree, thoughtlessly scattering it and a million other seedpods across the land.

Silver maples, even more common than the springhouses that once dotted farms like ours, are scorned by nurserymen, who consider them undistinguished and prone to splitting. Thus,

my horticulturist husband tells me, it’s unlikely that anyone would have made the effort to plant a silver maple in that spot, especially since the house itself wasn’t built until the 1880s. And I’m fine with the notion that someone might have built the house precisely because of such a beautiful, if horticulturally ordinary, tree. Today, the two are only feet apart, as close as lovers leaning in to each other.

Just as any nosy neighbor would, I watch the tree and its many animal inhabitants. From the first floor of the house, all I can see is the enormous trunk, its elephant gray, rough-skinned bark

and its impressive 30-foot circumference.

There are no branches at this level, just furrowed highways that run north and south and a band of silver-green lichen at the base. Only from upstairs can I see the tree’s massive waist—the point at which its eight main limbs branch out, culminating in green. 

For all its advanced years, the giant bursts with life. In winter, nuthatches hop up and down its lower 20 feet, calling to mind shoppers on department store escalators. Gray squirrels, like skaters, glide to the ends of branches, pirouette and hop back.

But now, in spring, it is our resident black snake that catches my eye from the kitchen. Emerging from hibernation, he descends from his treetop lodgings to sun himself on the brick walkway or to hunt for mice in my vegetable garden. Or he will just drape himself over the enormous burl that juts out at around 10 feet until a sudden sound from below—usually a startled visitor—sends him back up again.

The tree is evidently a good place to raise a family. For years, a boisterous clan of raccoons has owned a hole somewhere in the thick limb closest to our bedroom window. At night, they wreak havoc in the recycling bins on the deck and explore under the front porch, returning home just as I get up. Sometimes we watch each other switching positions through the plate glass, one tired family ascending to bed and the other just descending to make tea.

Three years ago, one of the raccoons’ offspring learned to climb in the arms of the tree. Perhaps because they were used to me, the watchful parents allowed the little one to go up and down

by itself every night at dusk. From the time I saw their heads appear at about 40 feet until the baby reached the ground took 20 minutes.

Like a rock-climber searching for handholds, the baby tested each stretch of bark until it felt secure enough to continue on its way, all the while gripping the tree tightly. Standing below, I couldn’t resist: I patted the raccoon’s bottom as he inched his way within my reach, causing him to reverse direction and scurry to safety high up in the leaves. 

The ancient maple is also a seasonal home for birds—grackles, mainly—which return every

spring to gather twigs and make nests in the many holes that pock the grizzled trunk. I’ve

often wished I could see the tree’s interior, to examine the snake’s hole, for example, and see what it has brought back over the years, or to inspect how the raccoons decorate. Do these species coexist peacefully, as it appears, or do the birds and squirrels clash in boundary disputes?

As in any vibrant apartment complex, some potential residents are turned off by the sheer activity. Five years ago, I heard the call of a Baltimore oriole near the house. Going to investigate, I saw its brilliant flash on one of the maple’s branches at the very tip where orioles weave their

pendulous nests.

For an hour, the oriole inspected the tree, flying up and down, looking into the very holes that I have been curious about. When he had made his selection and began to collect material for a nest, I draped bits of llama wool and other building materials over nearby bushes.

Over the next two days, my family and I spent hours watching as the oriole and his mate worked diligently on their new home. We saw the llama wool, along with colored embroidery floss, emerging from the tangle.

Suddenly the work stopped, and the next morning the orioles were gone. The only thing left looked like a halfway knitted sock waving in the wind. I’ll never know for sure why they left, but they moved up the road to my mother-in-law’s pear tree where it’s quiet as a tomb. 

Inevitably, the tree is showing signs of age. Gaps are growing in its upper reaches, and heavy storms pull more than just the stray follicle from its graying scalp. I fret over it as one does an aging relative, checking after each storm that nothing is broken and inspecting its bark regularly

for disease. The tree surgeon comes more often and has had more to do, cutting back some of its highest branches. Some year, perhaps in my lifetime, the tree will die.

But it isn’t the maple’s decline that strikes me; it is its vigor. With the return of spring, I look forward to taking my rest from weeding as I always do: with a glass of iced tea in the coolness of its undiminished shadow, as the leaves again color its branches green.