TREE TALK – May 2007

By Judy Garrison

What is it with all the trees toppling in Andes over the last months? I’ve heard a version of that query from all kinds of people disturbed by the disappearance of large numbers of mature trees. Some referred to those brought down around a certain large white house; others were alluding to the bare stumps on the lane leading up to the rural cemetery off of High Street; still others wondered why trees flanking the Presbyterian church were gone.

These days we are mindful of how trees prevent erosion, and how by “inhaling” the too plentiful carbon dioxide and returning oxygen to the atmosphere they are ecologically vital. Although we as a culture may not worship trees as the Druids did, we are touched by their beauty and grandeur, and they become part of our sense of a particular place.

If I may tell a personal story: a few years ago when I drove down the street in West Hempstead on Long Island where I grew up, the place felt alien. I was overcome with a vertiginous disorientation: this was my old “block” where once I had committed to memory every plant and stoop and sidewalk paver. But although the street sign still said “Marlborough Road,” I just didn’t recognize it. Not because the “mock Tudors” and Spanish-style stucco houses had been given new trim colors and shrubbery. No, it was because the majestic Norway maples, whose sidewalk-strewn seed-wings we’d glue to our noses in spring, the proud, venerable trees which shaded the length of the street in a graceful canopy, and gave the neighborhood its character, were all gone and nothing had been planted to replace them. Though this was no longer my street – I hadn’t lived there in forty years -I felt betrayed. I vowed not to allow this sad scene to sully my cherished memories.

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Ethel Edwards means business

I have to acknowledge, that despite the emotional dismay I share with many others at seeing trees disappearing in great number, there are often many sound reasons for removing them. For safety, highway departments cut down trees that obstruct visibility to traffic and where deep shade prevents the sun from melting hazardous road ice. If trees have grown large and close to a building they can, by preventing moisture from evaporating, cause deterioration through mildew and rot. They may block a desirable view, or if old and vulnerable by dint of age, disease or damage from a lightening strike, pose an imminent hazard to nearby structures.  I’ve heard mention that the soggy ground conditions we’ve experienced lately, as in last summer’s flooding, make a shallow-rooted tree more likely to fall over. And remember the freakish bout of wind shear that brought down large trees like Ethel Edwards’ huge spruce? With the possibility of such weather anomalies like those recurring, some owners feel compelled to take pre-emptive action to protect their own and their neighbors’ homes. In the case of the church, an insurance company, having already paid out compensation for damage done by a fallen tree to a neighbor’s house, announced that they would not cover the insured party for any damages caused by falling trees in the future. Deeming the liability risk too great to bear, the church decided to have all the remaining hundred-year-old trees, which proved to be sound, cut to stumps. While an understandable decision, the result was not pretty.

Yes, attitudes to downed trees differ widely and legitimately: where some may see a copse of trees behind a venerable dwelling as an enhancing part of the look and feel of the property, others may appreciate the opened-up view of the hillside when that copse is leveled; where someone may rue the removal of a century old Norway spruce from a front lawn, another may applaud the newly revealed visibility of the house façade.

There are some clear-cut (no pun intended) criteria for deciding when a tree poses a hazard of falling in unwanted ways and when it is worth saving. What and when to cut and what and where to re-plant are questions we might well have. We are particularly sensitive to the “tree” issue here in Andes because of our recent history. And we will soon witness additional trees being felled as part of the highway re-paving and streetscape project. (New trees will be planted to take their places.) See the box on page 2 for an opportunity to learn from a local forester how to evaluate when it is time to cut a tree and how to weigh the options. Jim Waters is Executive Director of the Catskill Forest Association, with offices in Margaretville. The CFA is a not-for-profit educational foundation. You may also call him at 845-586-3059 to arrange for an individual consultation. ~