Several weeks ago I blogged about a tree in our backyard on Happy Hollow. It is scheduled to be removed due to rot on the inside from an injury it sustained in a storm several years ago. But today, it is still standing in the backyard, wearing its autumnal coat of oranges and reds, gloriously majestic for now at least. I will miss it when it’s gone…and then we will plant another. Hopefully it will grow into the beauty that its predecessor has been.
I love trees and I guess as someone who appreciates the creation around me in the environment I live in, that makes me a tree hugger. That’s what they called us when we were in the Ecology Club at Westside High. We wore the moniker proudly and tried to live into its definition. We did curbside recycling before our city had that program, and we also collected Christmas trees in early January so they could be recycled into wildlife habitat. We loved Fontenelle Forest and we could sing the Woodsy Owl song!
But it’s trees I want to talk about today.
When we were young in Omaha in the 1960s, the American elm tree was everywhere. Oh my gosh! You could drive down streets under a canopy of elms that bordered both sides. Tall and mighty, they formed this dark green roof overhead. We even used to call 90th Street the “dark street” because driving it down it from Pacific to Center the light from the sun could not penetrate the thick covering of elm leaves above. It was like entering a mysterious new world instead of driving down a residential street in suburban Omaha. All over Omaha, the streets were like this.
And then the dreaded Dutch elm beetle invaded and over the course of several years, most of those elms were cut down. In our yard alone on 105th Street, we lost seven American elm trees. It was so sad. I can still hear the chainsaws and smell the aroma of those trees as they were mown down. Years later, they widened 90th Street to four lanes, a job made easier because those ranks of elms on the west and east sides were all gone. It was no longer the mysterious dark street, just twelve blocks to speed through in the neighborhood. You can still find an elm tree in Omaha, a lonely sentinel and reminder about what our streets looked like half a century ago.
Besides those elms in the backyard we had two other special trees. Well, they were special to us! To Daddy they were just messy: a weeping willow that dropped sap on the windshield of his car, which was too big for the garage, and a mulberry in the back corner of the yard. Well, you know what mulberry trees drop.
Oh, but those trees! They were both climbing trees! We even had wooden rungs nailed up the trunk of the willow so we could climb into a sort of fort. Underneath the tree was just as good. That’s where the rabbit hutches were for awhile, and of course the sandbox built out of an old semi-trailer tire. Endless hours were spent under that tree creating villages with roadways for our Matchbox cars. That old willow shaded our recreational endeavors, on summer days when kids used to play outside. The tender, swaying, weeping branches always caused the sun that did shine through them to make interesting and moving patterns where we were playing.
The mulberry was in the back corner on the fenceline of our neighbor’s yard. We would get a boost off the top of the fence to get to the lowest branch so we could hoist ourselves up there. For whatever reason, the view not just of the neighborhood, but of life in general was just better from the branches of that tree. We had some tough growing up years with the evil step-mother whom you know from Grimms’ fairy tales, and life in those years was just better up in that tree. Besides, the mulberries were tasty!
Both the willow and the mulberry came down eventually, just like the elms.
When I was in sixth grade, our school system gave every family a Russian olive tree to plant in their yards for Arbor Day, a tree-planting holiday started right here in Nebraska. I guess the school systems continued this for many years because Russian olive trees were soon to be seen all over the city. They too, were eventually cut down. Not pretty enough I guess for modern suburban dwellers who like less messy trees. The one in our yard that we planted back in 1971 was the last one in our neighborhood to go. Not because it was ugly or messy, but it just finally died.
I love the trees. I’m a tree hugger, like I said. And these beautiful fall days I am lucky enough to drive home through one of the most beautiful places in Omaha, Elmwood Park. Yes, it’s named for trees you can no longer find there, but there are others to take their place, and the most beautiful right now are the maples like the one soon to be removed from my backyard. There is a line of four of them about midway through the park’s upper road that make a wave of color. One starts changing, then the one next to it, and so on down the line. I have seen cars pull over to take their photo. That’s what I did today for this blog! But I have also seen families there having their pictures taken under the glorious covering of their fall colors. Years from now they will pull out those pictures, their children now grown and remember the beauty of the trees in the fall.
I will have my photos of those trees, too, I guess. But the pictures I remember of special trees – trees worth hugging! – are only found when I close my eyes. They are not just visual memories either. There are sounds of the wind in their branches. There are the smells of their blossoms in the spring. There are the feelings of their leaves brushing my face and the bark under my fingers as I climb. There are the taste of sweet berries and tart crabapples.
God bless the trees! I am so grateful for their beauty at all times, but especially in this season when their colors are as bright as the flowers in spring. They lift my spirits on any day at anytime, but I especially love the way they light my way home from church, with their upper leaves blazing like the tops of candles.
The elms may not spread their arches over the streets anymore, but the maples do. So as I drive home this afternoon, my imagination will take me back to the mysterious roads we use to travel as children and be grateful that I live in the home of Arbor Day. Someone thought to replant that which had been struck down and our tree-climbing days of youth go on!
I think I’m going to hug that tree in the backyard one more time…