The Mountain Ash Tree

The wind roared through the trees on our mountain homeplace today. It wasn’t as strong as a few days ago when gusts were above forty miles per hour. Such winds can be rough for weaker trees when the frozen soil is thawing and wet from melting snow. One of our mountain ash trees has been declining in the past few years. Some of its several trunks had begun showing signs of age (we planted the trees more than thirty years ago) and a number of its branches had already died. The wind was too much for this tree. When we saw it the next day, it was leaning at a forty-five degree angle, partially touching against the side of our little barn and threatening to fall across part of our garden fence.

Reluctantly, we acknowledged it was time to take action; the tree had to come down. We hated the prospect of losing this tree. It and all of our mountain ashes have been favorites, both for us and for the many birds who visit. It sits about thirty feet from our deck, a good distance for the birds to grab a few seeds from a feeder and fly to a nearby ash branch to eat in peace. The tip of the highest branch has also been a choice perch for one of the hummingbirds. It sits there and watches for another hummingbird intruding into its territory and then swoops down to assert its claim. This ash tree is also clearly visible from our windows and deck, its bright red clusters of berries particularly striking in the fall and early winter. The berries are also a favored food for migrating robins, cedar waxwings, and evening grosbeaks. We’ve had flocks drop in suddenly and consume the entire crop in a day, a real treat to see.

But today we had to remove this tree. Perhaps it can be replaced by one of the seedlings that had sprouted from berries dropped beneath its branches in past years. I pulled up twenty or so last fall and transplanted them to a small bed with the plan to plant them when the older trees died. We’ll see how that works out when spring hopefully brings the new growth.

Cutting and removing the tree was not the easiest of tasks today. It wasn’t nearly as cold as it has been during the past couple of weeks, but the temperature was still not much above freezing and the wind was brisk. The snow still on the ground made the sloping hillside slippery and the slush created by the brief period of sunshine quickly made boots and gloves wet and chilly. It also wasn’t the best of conditions for climbing even a short distance up the ladder, the base of which was resting on the previously mentioned slippery snow. But there were no mishaps.

Since the tree was leaning against the barn and partially overhanging the fence, I didn’t want it to continue falling in the direction it was headed. I secured a heavy rope around the two trunks and another rope around one of the foundation posts of our deck. Between the two ropes, I fastened a come-along, a hand-operated winch that enabled me to put some backward pressure on the tree trunks. I didn’t want the tree to fall farther toward the fence. Climbing the ladder with chainsaw in hand (never something I feel comfortable doing), I cut off the topmost branches that were the greatest threat to the fence. One branch landed partly across the fence but the heavy taut wire along the top of the fence supported the weight until we could move the branch. After the top branches were gone I cut sections farther down the trunks, a much simpler job since some of it could even be done from the ground.

So the tree is gone. Its familiar spot looks awfully empty after being occupied all these years by our beloved mountain ash. Memories remain—and pictures. I didn’t take photos of the process of cutting the tree, but I did take many of the tree itself, as a memorial to the tree and all the life forms it supported. I delight in the intricate patterns in the bark of our trees and the lichens and mosses which grow on their trunks and branches. These things are some of my favorite photography subjects. Here are a few of my photos of our beautiful mountain ash tree. They may appear to be abstract designs, but all are completely natural—nature in its amazing wonder. I hope you enjoy them as I do.

 

 

So Much To See

Our quiet place here at the end of the road first greeted us with a meadow covered in a profusion of daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, and wild strawberries. But it had not always been that way. Not many years before we came here the land had been cleared and farmed. The son of a nearby neighbor whose family had once owned this land told us of helping his family clear the land and then grow cabbage, a common crop throughout the area even for some years after we arrived. The decaying remnants of split rail fences they had built bordered part of the property and locust posts remained where barbed wire fences had been placed. The woods still covering two-thirds of our homeplace even now contain stumps and moss-covered logs of the chestnut trees killed by blight in the early part of last century. Since chestnut trees made up an estimated one-fourth of all hardwood trees in the Appalachians before the blight, no doubt this mountainside was once covered with chestnuts.

The land continues to change. Obviously our presence here has had a large impact on the land closest around the house and garden, but that is a small part of our homeplace. The woods have retaken naturally part of the meadow that we were not using otherwise. An abandoned project of ours to raise Christmas trees in part of the meadow now gives us a sizable patch of 50-75 foot tall trees, mainly Norway Spruce, loved by deer and birds and who knows which of our other animal friends. Were we to stop maintaining the yard and garden areas, this would all quickly revert to woodland through the natural progression of an Appalachian hardwood forest.

We came here wanting to be in a place in the mountains, surrounded by nature, and we certainly are. To name a few of the things we have found here:

Trees: oaks, maples, cherries, black birches, hickories, elms, beeches, black locusts, tulip poplars, mountain magnolias (cucumber tree), ashes, hemlocks, cedars, white pines, sourwoods, serviceberries, hawthorns

Flowering plants: rhododendrons, flame azaleas, mountain laurels, dog hobbles, daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, wild strawberries, blueberries

Birds: chickadees, house finches, purple finches, tufted titmice, nuthatches, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern phoebes, evening grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bluejays, crows, barred owls, screech owls, barn owls, starlings, barn swallows, Carolina wrens, red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks

Mammals: red squirrels, grey squirrels, fox squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, possums, rabbits, grey foxes, red foxes, black bears, coyotes, mice, voles, bats

Reptiles: black snakes, corn snakes, garter snakes, ring-neck snakes

Amphibians: red-spotted newts, black salamanders, spade-foot toads, wood frogs, spring peepers

Grasses, “weeds”, and other small/low-growing plants: too numerous to begin listing

There are so many fascinating things to be observed even in this small patch of the world where we live. I get the feeling that many people never even see some of the most obvious things around them, too busy with the affairs of their everyday lives or perhaps thinking the natural world not important or not interesting enough to merit their attention. Many don’t know the names of the most common birds, trees, or flowers that surround them every day and are amazed when we recognize a wildflower from a distance or identify a bird by its flight pattern or call. So much is there to be seen by merely taking the time to notice. So much delight is there to be missed when we don’t pay attention to our natural surroundings.