Backyard Tree R.I.P.

Posted by Howard on Sep 27, 2010 - 4 comments

It’s a tough time for trees here on the BC Coast. No, I don’t mean the ones being logged on the hillsides, though that is certainly a concern. Most of those are second- or third- or fourth- growth specimens on sites that have long since been dedicated to providing industrial fibre, but do they have to keep cutting them at ever-earlier ages? Could not matters be arranged so our once-great Douglas Fir stands could get past the whippy beanpole stage before being mowed down for the next crop? Wouldn't the gain in value pay for the wait? Apparently not. Nor do I mean the great swatches of forest that are getting eradicated to make way for the power corridors that are suddenly branching out to hundreds of remote mountain creeks where small hydro projects (IPPs) are being built. Most of us will never lay eyes on that permanently denuded wilderness, although we may feel the impact when our hydro rates are jacked up to cover the generous incentives our government has given the IPPs' foreign owners.

No, the trees I’m thinking of are the ones we have around our homes providing shade and privacy, serving as hotels for squirrels and birds and offering sturdy limbs to anchor swings and treehouses. These are the trees we get to know as individuals, almost as family. You see them in old pictures when the kids were small and before the house had been re-sided, looking just the same, providing a reassuring thread of continuity through changing times, just as they’ve done for hundreds of years. You get attached to them. But the past two years of freakish climate-change winds have brought a lot of these old friends down across people’s roofs, and even the sturdiest-looking specimens have come under suspicion. We had a beautiful cedar about four feet through standing between our place and the neighbours that suddenly became a point of contention. I brought in an arborist who said it didn’t pose any more risk than any other tree does, but the neighbours got a second opinion that said it had rot in it. I wasn’t greatly swayed by this. Most old cedars have a bit of rot and go on sequestering carbon for centuries. What sealed the old tree’s fate was my neighbour saying it kept them up on windy nights, driving the kids to huddle in the farthest corner of the house. That triggered a memory.

Back in the 1950s our family home had a big mama cedar in the front yard. My Dad wasn’t as sentimental about trees as people are now and would have given it the chop except that it had a hard lean out over Francis Peninsula Road. That made it problematic for even the most skilled faller to set it down without taking out the powerlines. The only completely safe solution was to deconstruct it bit by bit from the top down but the only people who did that in those days were BC Electric, and Dad reckoned he would let them worry about it. It had such a hard lean away the house it was hard to imagine it doing us any damage. Still, when the wind blew, we thought about that tree. It was hard to ignore because it had a schoolmarm in it and when it swayed it let out the most godawful squawk. I shared the upstairs bedroom with my kid brother, who was about six, and this one night the tree was squawking so loud he got scared and crawled in with me. I told him there was nothing to worry about, given the direction of lean etc. but I was only half convinced myself. The storm kept rising and the schoolmarm kept squawking louder. There would be a long, drawn out squee-eee-eeek, then a pause as the tree reached the perigee of its swing toward us, then a long squaaa-aaa-aawk as it swung away toward the road. You just couldn’t help holding your breath during that pause at the end of the squee-eee-eek, waiting for the reassuring squa-aaa-awk that signified it wasn’t coming right down on top of us. I was in the midst of recounting the physics of the situation and telling myself I was silly to be so scared when one squee-eee-eek was punctuated by some loud cracks and whump! The ceiling of our bedroom crunched down, pinning us to the bed.

Physics be damned, the old tree had fallen straight backward against the lean and taken out the back half of our roof. Apart from being scared out of our wits, we were none the worse for wear and actually enjoyed considerable celebrity when the local paper reported the incident.

That’s the dang trouble with trees. You just never know. There’s always the chance of a freak gust that will strike them from an angle they’re not braced for, and this hasn’t just started happening in the last couple winters. It didn’t look to me like the cedar between me and my neighbour would be thick enough to do serious damage by the time it reached their house, especially if we trimmed it, but the idea of scared kids huddling in their beds was just too vivid to me. I gave in and let them take the old beauty down.

But I think of it every time I open the door, and I think of all the other fine old trees that are getting whacked down along the coast and around the province in advance of another winter of abnormal storms. You can hear a steady chorus of powersaws.