The tree is a quaking or trembling aspen, although until I started writing this post I didn’t know its real name. We have always called it a popple tree. It stands at the corner of the dooryard, where it watches over the house I grew up in, just as it watched over the old house, the one my father grew up in, the one that was razed in 1956. It saw me come home from the hospital after I was born, just as it saw Dad come home from the hospital after he was born.
We are not the only generations to have lived beneath it, though. According to family lore, the popple tree is 90 years old. Of course, we’ve said that for 40 years now, and my grandparents might have said it when Dad was a boy, so it must be at least 130 years old, or maybe 160. Given its incredible girth, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that it was standing there when Abraham Lincoln was a boy, almost 200 years ago.
Any day now, we will able to count the rings and find out, for the popple tree is coming down.
There was a storm the other night, no worse than dozens of other storms that have buffeted our little square of Clarno Township over numberless years. But this time, on this night, the wind hit the old girl a little too hard, or a little too square, or just plain wrong. After past storms, it’s been possible to shore it up, trim the damaged limbs, make her more comfortable. But the last time it happened, the prognosis wasn’t especially good. Like an elderly patient who suffers another health scare, the popple tree was destined to live out her remaining years in a delicate condition. When the next scare might come was unknown, but the eventual outcome of it was not.
The house has lost trees before. When I was very young, a couple of giant elm trees stood in the yard, but we lost them, like so many others, to Dutch Elm disease. Part of the stand of pine trees behind the house was removed a couple of decades ago. But losing the popple tree is a different matter entirely. Almost everywhere you go around the farm buildings, you can see it. It’s as tall as the silo. It frames the space over which it towers, as if it were protecting the house in the crook of an arm. It shades the dooryard and the driveway beyond. In the spring, it dribbles sap, so you have to be careful about parking your car beneath it. It’s hosted tire swings and sandboxes. Generations of cats, dogs, and kids have played around it.
I can’t imagine what home is going to be like without it. When its leaves don’t respond to the summer breeze, the afternoon sound will be wrong. When they don’t shelter the house from the setting sun, the evening light will be wrong. Yes, I know that the elms have been replanted, and the new trees are tall and beautiful. But the popple tree, a singular lady in a special spot, will not be so easily replaced. Whatever I walked out of the house to do as a young man—go off to kindergarten, graduate high school, marry my wife, bury my best friend—happened in her watchful shadow, as has everything I’ve come home to do now that I’m old.
The practical part of me thinks its crazy to feel grief over a tree. The practical part of me needs to keep quiet for a while.
Coming Tomorrow: The year is 1970. At the Iola People’s Fair, Wisconsin hippies try planting their own garden, but it comes up all wrong.