A little over a week ago, on Monday, February 4, the last casualty of Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy was removed from my backyard. That was Tree, which was fatally wounded overnight on October 29 when one of its trunks was sheared off by the winds.
Let me tell you about Tree. My guess is that Tree was about 60 or 70 feet tall — a silver maple that towered over my house on Park Place in downtown Princeton and over my garage apartment in the backyard and over several neighbors’ houses as well in our dense, downtown neighborhood with small houses and even smaller lots. Its shade was so abundant in part because three major limbs — trunk size themselves — sprang in different directions from the main trunk.
When I bought the house for $72,000 or so in 1981, Tree was the amenity that never appeared on the real estate listing form. But an amenity it was — a majestic, green canopy of foliage warding off the brutal heat of the increasingly warm summer months.
I figured that Tree was about as old as the houses around it, all of which were built around the turn of the 20th century — the precursors of the tract homes that appeared in the second half of the 20th century. Back when I bought the property I looked at 80-something year-old Tree as a rock of ages, a permanent shield from summer’s incessant heat.
Over the years I began to look a little closer and I noticed that two of Tree’s three major limbs were laced together by steel guy wires. But I didn’t worry too much about that because every year Tree would sprout another two or three feet of growth. In the last 10 years I began to hire tree trimmers to cut branches back from the house beneath it, so that winds could blow under and around it and not end up full force against it.
During Hurricane Irene Tree took a pretty big hit, and a large branch bounced off the house and onto the back deck. No one was hurt, and the house wasn’t damaged, but I began to look a little harder at my good old friend. I decided to lighten Tree’s load substantially by hiring a tree surgeon to remove half of one of those three trunk-sized limbs. Essentially we were taking down one-sixth of Tree, cutting his load and making it even easier for big winds to blow around him, rather then directly into him.
I cringed when the Halloween snow storm struck a few weeks after Irene, and the big guy’s aging limbs — with leaves still intact — had to shoulder a huge extra burden. But Tree made it through that storm and stood tall for another whole year.
On October 29 Tree and I were not so lucky. Sandy’s midnight wind split off one of the three limbs, slamming it across two fences on my L-shaped property, and then across the first neighbor’s fence and then the second neighbor’s fence, as well. At first glance it seemed that I escaped major damage, except for the broken fences. But then, no doubt based on years of delivering U.S. 1 newspaper, I walked around the corner of the garage apartment to see if I was missing anything. Sure enough, a branch had struck the chimney and cleanly lopped off the top four or five feet of concrete block, which had fallen squarely on the air conditioner below.
No big deal, I thought. But here Tree taught me a lesson, and made me doubly appreciate the agony that thousands of people must still be enduring to this day in the devastated areas of the Jersey and New York shore. First the fallen trunk and branches had to be removed to clear the way for any work. I paid an exorbitant fee to a crew from North Carolina to do the work. (They explained that, among other unusual expenses, they had to drive in every day from a hotel in Pennsylvania — all the rooms in New Jersey were taken.)
The damage to the chimney was twice as bad as what you saw — it was damaged below the break point, as well. And, of course, the $2,000 chimney liner also had to be replaced. When one contractor gave me a price to take down the entire chimney that was almost the same as repairing it, I opted for that approach. That meant I also had to replace the furnace, which was near the end of its life, anyhow, and the hot water heater, which was relatively new but could be donated to Habitat for Humanity.
In the end everything cost me $22,000, and insurance reimbursed almost $14,000 (promptly and with no quarrels, incidentally).
I was lucky that I had a rainy day fund to cover expenses while the various building trades people took turns working. I was also lucky that I had a job with flexible hours that would permit me to meet with contractors and building inspectors whose own schedules were in flux. And, compared to the thousands of residents on the Jersey shore and in the Rockaways of New York whose lives still are not back to normal, I was lucky to be able to call the case closed after 97 days.
It took not one but two days for the tree surgeons to remove Tree. The first day an adventurous worker wearing boots with steel shanks and armed with a chain saw clambered into the heights of tree and lopped off as many small branches as he could. On the second day the crew was assisted by a 90-foot, telescopic crane that supported the major limbs as they were chain-sawed from the trunk.
In the back of my mind I wondered if I had pulled the plug too quickly on my deciduous friend. The experts say you should consult an arborist before removing a tree, and that tree surgeons have a vested interest in removing a tree. But the limb that had fallen during Sandy did not seem healthy to my untrained eye. What should have been a distinct pith in the center of the limb was instead over a foot in diameter — a mass of spongy material almost as big as the heartwood around it.
When the two limbs springing from the trunk had been severed I looked closely at the ends. Sure enough, the same spongy mass was visible in each of them. Maybe trees, like people, have an allotted time. Tree had reached his end. Spring will be the time to plant a new one.