Discover more from Mortality Musings by Carole Silvoy
Why I Love My Ash Tree
Imperfection can be just right.
I’ve lived in my house for over 40 years. Of all the townhomes in the neighborhood we have the largest yard. It opens wide from the back and fans out and up a sloping hill to the front of the property. Back in the day I planted lilacs, and peonies, some favorites of mine. And there was so much sun during the day that my husband planted roses. When a depression appeared in the lawn and we filled it, he noticed that the shape was like a heart. I soon found him outside measuring and edging a perfect heart-shaped rose garden - I took a photo of him flopped, exhausted and sweaty, on the grass during the creation of this huge thing - a labor of love. For many years the roses thrived there, with red geraniums blooming in between them, and each time he found an especially beautiful rose to add, he got one for his Mom’s tiny backyard as well. We even had a birdbath at the center for a while, to keep the birds I love to see coming to the yard and happy. (Note: Chloe Hope’s Death & Birds is a fabulous Substack read!)
Along the back of the property he set a bunch of chunky rocks along the property line. Beyond our yard there is a large space belonging to the airport, consisting of fields and copses of woods stretching almost a half a mile out to the main road and the airport itself - the alternate runway flight path is directly over our house! You get used to it, even our cats do. But my Daddy never tired of seeing the planes go over so low, and very often I think how he loved seeing them, even a dozen years since he died. There is wildlife filling this space, from vultures, hawks, and owls, today even a lone turkey, to goldfinches and hummingbirds. We have a herd of deer and a fleeting red fox, even the occasional pack of coyotes. True story: late one dark summer night I heard howls coming from the field, and the cry of some small prey being caught. The coyote howls had raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and as I listened to the night for any sign they were still there, a Great Horned Owl in the tree not twenty feet from my window piped up with a loud Whoo- hoo hoo hoooo!!. I about jumped out of my skin. I can’t help but think it was having a good laugh at me.
That wasn’t the Ash tree, though. That was a large Black Walnut tree along the property line with the neighbor’s yard. That tree grew and spread and littered the yards with walnuts in neon green tennis-ball-looking orbs in the fall. For weeks they would fall, and I’d be collecting them… hundreds of them. It was messy, and the squirrels who immensely enjoyed eating and burying these walnuts were not very neat about them either. My husband had planted 3 foundling evergreens along the back, and the ash tree was at the back of the yard as well, but that walnut was a very pushy tree. Over the years it became so large and obtrusive there was not a lot that could grow beneath it, and the masses of its leaves blocked out the sun that had made the roses so happy years before.
I had not done much of anything with our yard for a long time, but in 2018 I began reclaiming the jungle. I created nicely edged flower beds and during Quarantine I filled them with perennials I found on NextDoor, from a lady who was separating large sections from her garden. By my patio and at the back edge of the lawn I made flower beds filled with wildflowers for the bees and birds. The shed got a makeover, and alongside it is a huge Butterfly Bush which lives up to its name. when we cut back the huge overgrown lilacs, I even rescued peony plants lost in their mass. I transplanted these forgotten stragglers and this summer I had my first big crop of luscious smelling peonies. This has transformed the yard, but the very biggest change came when I had the massive black walnut tree taken out. Not only is there more sun but also about an acre of sky I had missed for so long.
The Walnut had done a number on the other trees, and the most encroached upon was the Ash. Because the Walnut was so huge and inhospitable to the growing things around it, the Ash tree had become lopsided. Its roots spread away from it on the north side, while the side near the Walnut seems stunted. There is a section of the tree that reaches very high but has died off, as well as dead branches that reach out below and among the leafy sections of the tree. I love the silhouette of bare winter trees as much as I do the broad shade of summer, especially to watch the birds and squirrels who feed and live there. But with the Ash tree, those bare branches are still exposed all summer, and I can see the birds even with the tree in full leaf. The Cooper’s Hawk who comes through to hunt will often rest at the very highest bare branches and keep an eye on her domain. Even the hummingbirds and goldfinches are easy to observe when they light on the bare limbs.
I am usually drawn to symmetry and order, things reaching my senses in balance, so it would be logical then for me to want this tree to have better balance, and nothing sticking out where it didn’t belong. The aliveness of this huge friend of mine could seem diminished by the dead spots and protruding high reaches of empty branches. But as I was thinking about this recently I recognized the beauty I see in the dead spots. Where the branches are no longer alive there is still the memory of the days when they had leaves. Pieces often break away requiring a pass over the lawn for deadfall before I can mow the grass, and when I gather them they are crusted with the most lovely lichen which I would never see in such clusters from the ground. So many woodpeckers have a grand time on the dead wood, and the blue jays fuss their way among the branches calling impatiently for a serving of peanuts each morning.
I am not unlike my Ash tree. There are parts of my life that have died away, but they still make up the shape of me. Losses add up through the years, and trying to lop them off doesn’t fill the space left empty. The people, places, times and things I have lost can be bare branches on which I hang my memories. There is also room to see the shape of my life and frame the person I’m still becoming.
We will be selling our home sooner rather than later, and I think about the things I’ll want the next keepers of this place to know. I’ve made little video tours of the plantings, these are the yellow Iris and those are the purple, and I’ll let them know what it is I love about the Ash tree. Strangely enough while I was writing this I was called away by the doorbell, and was surprised to meet the arborist who had arrived to give the Ash its biannual injection against disease. It’s true that no one may love it the way I do, but it will go on.
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