Wednesday, October 18, 2006


On October 11, Lene of the “counting petals” blog (See sidebar.) posted a writing prompt called “A Place to Start” on the “Whorled Leaves” blog:

Your front door. Clear your mind, open your front door, and step out. What is the first--very first--thing you notice? The thumb-print sized leaves of a crabapple tree, a child's scarf crumpled in the grass, maybe the sound of geese honking above the gray veil of clouds--whatever it is, let it be your starting point. Tell us a story from your front door. It doesn't have to be true--you can take us anywhere. Just take us on a journey from those steps before you.

She got me thinking about the things I see in my own front yard.

The first thing to catch my eye when I opened my front door on Monday morning was the flash of a cardinal flying across the entryway, going from the rhododendrons on one side of the little front porch to those on the other side. I planted those shrubs nearly 20 years ago as one of the first outside projects I did when we moved into this house. Some might argue it was one of the last things I did, too. They are now so large and healthy that I have to prune them back every couple of years lest they completely obscure the windows. The cardinal was one of a family group of three: a male, a female, and a young bird still clinging to its parents. This extended young-rearing is bird behavior I hadn’t noticed before. I’m quite sure they nested in a huge, old clump of forsythia that occupies too much of our back yard. That impenetrable tangle of droopy switches is also home to the catbirds that I enjoy hosting every spring. It’s an ugly clump and it takes up too much room, but I don’t need the space and after untold decades, untold generations of birds have fledged from those bushes and I am reluctant to be the one to bring that to an end.

Then, I am struck by the cold air of October. On my way to get the Globe, still dressed only in gym shorts and tee shirt, I am reminded that it is time to turn on the heat, put the storm panels in the doors and start closing the storm windows. I really do need to get the wood stove ready to go.

It is a wonderfully clear October morning and the rising sun has back-lit the big sugar maple next door into a brilliant blaze of yellow and orange with just lingering fringes of green. This masterpiece of nature’s autumnal artwork is painted on the canvas of a crystal blue sky. I covet my neighbor’s tree. I have four large maples in my yard, but they are all Norway maples (Acer platanoides), introduced from Europe. A few of my neighbors have big, old, native sugar maples (Acer saccharum). My maples change color later in the season, on European time, and turn a rather drab yellow. The native sugar maples offer the classic display of New England color in the fall.

Most of the sugar maples seem to be in front of the older houses on the street – those a century or so old. My house is a little newer, built in 1929, and maybe that’s why I have these new-fangled Norway trees. Maybe they were planted, or maybe they were volunteers allowed to grow. I notice that all the weedy volunteers that I cut back these days are Norway maples. These newcomers thrive here. Any neglected corner of a yard will soon have several shooting up, to the exclusion of any native trees.

It’s as if the natives no longer fit in. Indeed, they may not. With more blacktop, more cars, more pollution and possibly global warming, sugar maples don’t do very well here anymore. In my years here, a few huge, old, decayed veterans have fallen to the chainsaw, and there are no youngsters to be found. I can imagine a time when horse-drawn buggies and Model-T Ford’s rattled up and down this street past these maples when it was paved with gravel, and I wonder if these old trees were ever tapped for sap. Now, every year I watch for dying branches high in the crowns of these sentinels, foreshadowing the end of yet another bit of history.

This is not to say I totally dislike my trees. They shade our southern exposure in the heat of the summer, even though the shade they cast is so deep that my landscaping options are quiet limited. The smaller of the two in our front yard has a crotch close enough to the ground that I fondly remember boosting my five year-old daughter up into this tree as we celebrated our first spring in New England after a five-year exile to Florida. Heavy winds sometimes blow brittle branches from the treetops, providing a little kindling for the fire. The cascade of moist leaves in November provides all the compost I could ever use. These new trees are becoming a part of a new history, my history as – even after 20 years – a newcomer in town.

As I step off the porch to get my morning paper, the trio of cardinals flushes from the rhododendrons. They fly up into one of my Norway maples. They don’t seem to mind this new kind of tree, and I hope they don’t mind the new occupant of this house, either.


At 10:27 PM, Blogger lené said...

That's a great piece! I'm so glad you let me know you posted it. I've been off-blog for a few days trying to catch up on other tasks and chores.

Your enthusiasm may inspire me to write another prompt tonight. We'll see how the brain works in the next hour or so. If you continue to write along, please let me know. I'd love to post your pieces or links to them, at least, from whorled leaves.

Back to your writing--I always appreciate your sensitivity and self-awareness. The fact that you still consider yourself a newcomber after 20 years is interesting. I appreciate your acceptance of the Norway maples too. And the light you described in the morning has me thinking about stepping out my front door a little earlier.

Thanks, again.

At 11:24 PM, Blogger GreenmanTim said...

Lovely, contemplative writing.

I understand that one can tap other maples besides sugar - including Norway, as they all have about 3% sugar content. The flavor is supposedly quite different from one type to another, so don't mix red maple sap with Norway or sugar with silver. In every case, evaporate until 62% sugar.

You have 4 trees and they have southern faces. 12" dbh takes 1 tap, 18" takes 2, and the maximum is 24" and 3. In a good run you should get a quart of syrup for every bucket. Figure 8 spiles, 8 covered buckets, a 7/16" drill bit not more than 2" into the wood on a slight downward angle on the sunny sides of the trees and a big evaporator on your wood stove.

At least, that's what I'd do with 4 Norways in my backyard. I do tap the big Sugar Maple and enjoy 1/2 gallon of syrup every March for my efforts.

At 10:56 PM, Blogger I_Wonder said...

I find nature calming, settling and -- well, natural. I find reading your descriptions calming, settling and natural.

At 5:21 PM, Blogger lené said...

Hey Tim--didn't we read about that in Rural Hours? Thanks for reminding me about the other species that can be tapped.

At 6:00 AM, Blogger Lilly said...

I often imagine what a place might have looked like a hundred or more years ago. How the oldest trees have seen the families and fads of human beings come and go.

I grew up in a city, and for the longest time, I thought that the world was made of pavement, and that people put in the sqaures of dirt to plant their little gardens on!

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Endment said...

Oh ----- I like this
Now I am inspired :)

At 11:38 PM, Anonymous asia tenggara said...

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