Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Willow Oak

We have a willow oak in our front yard. It was already full-grown when Amy moved in 15 years ago and the same when I joined her 2 years later. I wasn’t familiar with willow oaks before I moved in. Maybe I had seen them before and just not paid any attention to them, but when I thought of an oak tree I thought of a white oak or red oak. An oak tree with that classic oak tree leaf and acorns the size of a good-sized cherry.

Leaves on my front walk
signal autumn
If you know the willow oak then you know its leaves are different. Its leaves are long and thin, not at all like a white oak’s leaves. And we do have white oaks too. They are in the backyard. And while the long and thin willow oak leaves are not at all like the white oak’s they are like their namesake’s, the willow tree. Though confusing a willow tree with a willow oak seems unlikely even for the least of the arborist among us.

I love our willow oak, but I didn’t always. I guess you could say it grew on me. Our willow oak is a large willow oak – very large with a canopy stretching over the street and back over nearly our entire house. In the summer its leaves shade our shingles and the house is cooler as a result. But in the fall, which the several thin brown leaves on my front walk tells me is starting, my willow oak drops those thin leaves over a wide area with significant deposits in my gutters. Its acorns are also smaller. More like blueberries than cherries.  The acorns fall too, of course, and mix in with the leaves on the ground and gutters. Should we ever grow an apple tree we could sprinkle on a balsamic vinegar and toss in a little blue cheese and we’d have a perfect waldorf salad. At least perfect for the happy squirrels with whom we share our yard.

I’ve gone through a couple rakes in my decade or so here. Before moving in with Amy, I had mostly been a townhouse, condo or apartment dweller.  As a child I grew up in the country with a yard and lots of trees and I did my fair share of leaf raking. I also did my fair share of leaf pile jumping and I imagine if you asked my parents they’d have a different recollection of my raking to jumping ratio. As a teen-ager I had summer and after school jobs working for a nearby farm. After the summer peaches ended and the autumn apples slowed, our boss, Mr. Heritage, would pay us minimum wage to rake leaves at the Methodist Church down the road. We’d rake huge piles onto a giant canvas then hoist the canvas onto a flatbed pulled by a tractor. We’d drive the leaves into the orchards and spread them out for mulch. All of this is to say I came to my current residence with a resume containing practical and advanced raking experience.

And like many life and work experiences, including some on my resume, there is a difference between the content and the context. Though I had raking experience I had no willow oak raking experience. Only white and red oak, along with sycamore, perhaps a little maple, and tulip tree. These are good rake training trees with their large leaves that rest loosely on the ground. They are happily gathered with the tines of the average rake. The willow oak is a different kind of thing. Its narrow leaves prefer, insist on really, the comfort of the ground. After only the first heavy fall dew, forget about a gentle rain, any willow oak leaves take that moisture, nestle down in the grass and embrace the earth. I use the word “embrace” in an attempt to be poetic, but those goddamned leaves, to be more precise, stick to the grass and earth like week-old dog shit. A rake is practically useless. It takes several passes over the same patch of earth, with increasing pressure, to relieve those leaves from my yard. And given their shape and size, the rake tines tend to mostly realign the leaves in a parallel direction so the next pass of the rake has zero affect at all other than to better arrange them in the same direction. I have learned, over the dozen autumns, to alternate each pass or so at a 30-45 degree angle so as to confuse the leaves. This seems to help though it is no perfect solution. And any of those leaves left behind, I have learned, will eventually decompose but only after taking my hard fought grass with it. That’s another story.

And the gutters are another story too, but one I’ll include here. Normal oak leaves – and by normal I’m referring to those red and white oak leaves – are large enough to mostly cover over the gutter in clumps. To be sure, plenty do get into the gutter itself and some into the downspout, but mostly two or three of the first fallen leaves will cooperate, overlap and cover the downspout so the others rest on top. Over the course of the fall, even though the gutter structure becomes completely overlaid with leaves, the overlapping and broad structure still leaves enough room for an average autumn rain to collect and discharge through the downspouts. Willow oak leaves have a different plan. Then conspire with a small stick or two and lodge themselves well down the downspout and create a foot or two-leaf plug column.  After this first vanguard of leaves has settled in, their reinforcements quickly fill up the gutter rendering the whole contrivance useless to guttering rain. Even now, on this chilled sunny October, I can see a November rain lipping over the edge of my gutters. A wet homage to the waterfall. All this is to say, the only real strategy to the willow oak in the autumn is to stay ahead as best I can. I can’t wait until all the leaves have fallen then dedicate a crisp Saturday afternoon to their removal. I have to plan ahead a bit more. If there is rain forecast for a day or two away, I better do spend some time, even if its an hour, to rake up what willow oak leaves I can before they imbed into my lawn. Which is exactly what I will do. I will do it in some fantasy future where I sit on my front porch with a cup of coffee in one hand and rake in the other waiting to dispatch each leaf as it falls.

But that isn’t what is going to happen. The forecast for the next few days calls for rain and I haven’t the time to be raking which means the willow oak leaves with the head start will become laminated to whatever they land on.

My willow oak as seen from my neighbor's yard
I say I love my willow oak yet have given scarce evidence for that emotion. I did mention the shade it offers. And that is nice. But I get shade from other trees too. I don’t know how old the tree is but it must be original to this neighborhood. My house was built in 1940 – probably one of the last before the war. There is a time gap in our little development of when homes were built and one can almost draw a line on a map based on when construction stopped and war making started. I imagine someone; maybe a young girl or boy, mentored by a father leaning on a shovel, planting my willow oak as a sapling that year of looming war. An oak of any sort would have been a good choice. It’s strength and future size a good symbol during those days. It is possible my willow oak was already there and the builders kept it while the house was built, but that seems unlikely. It would have been a young tree, not sturdy and mature enough to be worth saving and incur the inconvenience of excavating and building around. And there are no other willow oaks nearby to leave an acorn behind. But I can never know. So I choose the image in my mind’s eye of the child planting the tree with an approving father’s oversight.

Over the years families and individuals walked passed my slowly maturing willow oak as they went off to whatever it is they did. And along with the tree, each person grew a little older. Eventually each person moved on leaving my willow oak to greet the next temporary inhabitant. Then the day came and my once future bride, Amy, arrived, walked up our front steps, past the willow oak, and settled in. Then she invited me in. Then two young boys. And too soon after, Amy left us behind along with my willow oak which sheltered us through the worst of storms. Eventually Lori and a small menagerie of loving pets walked past the tree and joined us in our home.

Through our human storms and meteorological storms with human names my willow oak has lost a few branches here and there. A knothole is growing about 15 feet up that is a home for squirrels. I had to have a large limb removed a year or so ago as it had grown too big and too close to the roof for my home insurance agent’s checklist. And some day my willow oak will die like we all must. I don’t know if I want to go before it goes, or if I want to stand witness to its demise. Some day may come when a terrific gust blows part or all of it down. Such a calamity will cause quite a mess of electric and telephone wires, possibly break a car or two, and maybe require another visit from my home insurance agent, or worse, a neighbor’s. And given that risk I know I will likely face a test administered by a well-meaning arborist who’ll force me to admit my willow oak’s death sentence. Some will see my decision as a merciful thing. But to me it will be a crime most foul. I do not look forward to that day in the least, but cannot imagine anyone else committing this premeditated murder for hire.

Like all things we love our minds sometimes drift to dark fantasies of when that thing must die. We hear something on the radio or someone says something and our mind drifts to that scary place where a loved one is no longer with us. I suppose it is essential to our human nature and is an evolved strategy to prepare ourselves, inadequately, for that certainty. I fear that future day, after the storm named for a person, when a large branch has taken out my and my neighbors electricity and perhaps worse. The gaping wound left on my willow oak’s trunk reveals a terminal rot. The decision I will be forced into will be both obvious and impossible. And that is how I know I love my willow oak. I love it because I fear the day I no longer rake its leaves.

Today though, when I walk out my front door, it will be there. Standing to my right as I walk out to do whatever it is I will do.

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