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When a tree falls, sympathy, sadness take root

September 21, 2018

Police erect a traffic barrier and hang yellow tape to keep the curious from cruising down our alley to get a closer look at the wreckage. Neighbors and friends do their best with the usual assortments of "I'm so sorry" and "If there's anything we can do to help" gestures.

But there are no Hallmark sympathy cards for our loss.

"It's a tree," my wife and I remind each other. We didn't lose a parent, a sibling, a child, a cousin, an in-law, a friend, a neighbor, a dog, a cat, a parrot, a rabbit, a ferret, a snake or a gerbil. We lost a tree. An old tree. We're not sure how old our mulberry tree was, but it was wrinkly, too old to produce berries, and couldn't stand up straight when we moved into our house in 1990.

Still ...

On my desk in the newsroom is a photo of our three sons as little boys, sitting on a branch of that tree, looking pretty content with themselves for having been able to climb it without help. The tree leaned so much that, with a good running start, they could scamper up to the first intersection of branches without even needing to use their hands to climb.

At home we have a nice photo of them sitting in a porch swing hanging from one of the tree's three main branches. That branch kept drooping, growing closer to the ground each year, until we no longer had room for the swing. We cut a notch in the alley fence to accommodate the branch, but when it began resting on the fence, we gave up the ghost and had it trimmed by professionals.

Arborists talked about our tree as if it were an old dog that needed to be put down. There was rot, hollow sections where raccoons and opossums slept at times, and the situation was only going to get worse, they promised. But our tree was almost like family. It reminded me of an old maple tree on the family farm where I grew up. When my dad started driving in the 1930s, his parents wouldn't let him park under the tree for fear it would fall down in a stiff breeze. When I was a kid, my sister Sally's collie, Taffy, would sleep in the hollow part of the trunk. That maple is still standing.

But our mulberry splintered around midnight, after a day of pouring rain had added more weight to the waterlogged branches. The noise, apparently louder than my snoring, woke my wife, who woke me. We immediately grabbed a flashlight and rushed into the darkness.

Just as people say when an aged loved one dies peacefully surrounded by loved ones, we realize the end for our tree couldn't have been better. It didn't hurt anybody or damage our house, smashed through one panel of our fence, missed the electric lines and came to rest about a foot from the fence of the neighbors across the alley.

The cleanup crew takes a couple of hours and a large chipper to dispose of the remains of our tree. A man using a stump-grinder removes the last visible sign that our mulberry had existed. Workers shovel the mulch into a mound that looks exactly like you'd see over a freshly dug grave.

We look out our living room window and see a gaping wound where our tree used to be. We need to plant a couple of trees, maybe even three to fill the void. The free service from the Morton Arboretum Plant Clinic, which starts its email with "We're sorry to hear about the loss of your tree," suggests we consider a Norwegian Sunset Maple, a Frans Fontaine European Hornbeam, a Japanese Tree Lilac or a Shawnee Brave Baldcypress.

Choosing the right tree is an awesome responsibility, as we're not planting it for us. We're planting it for some future generation, in the hope that they'll have the same fond memories and sense of sadness when it falls.

This story was previously published in the Daily Herald.

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