GOODBYE TO THE SUGAR MAPLE


When we bought our 1965-vintage house 22 years ago the front lawn was the site of two trees.  The Farm Home Administration required trees on the lot to underwrite a mortgage, so builders would plant the minimum number of "FHA trees" for the home to qualify.  Usually these were fast-growing species such as the silver maple, but for some reason someone planted a sugar maple on our front lawn.

It was a well-shaped tree that turned a glorious orange-red in the Fall: its flaming ball of Autumn foliage was a startling sight as you approached the house.  It turned color earlier than other trees in the neighborhood, becoming our local annual "marker" of Autumn’s arrival.  When the first hint of orange appeared on its west side, it was Fall, whatever the calendar said.

The Great Ice Storm of February 1994 damaged this tree pretty badly, cracking off the upper part of one trunk.  We were advised at the time to cut it down but I hated to lose it; we left it alone after pruning and sealing the injury, and hoped for the best. 

For the next 15 years it lived, the damaged areas actually proving a boon for local wildlife.  Squirrels nested in cavities created by the rotted part the upper trunk, and in Spring the sap flow attracted yellow-bellied sapsuckers and at least three varieties of woodpeckers.  It continued to produce leaves, and in Summer when the remaining branches were fully leafed out you could hardly tell it had suffered an “amputation” of a major part of its structure. 

It faithfully heralded Autumn until last year, when it suddenly reached the end of its life.  Instead of golden-orange the leaves became a dull reddish brown and fell off early.  It was time to admit that the arborist had been right in 1994: the ice storm had killed it, even if it took nearly 15 years for the tree to realize it was dead. My wife decreed that the corpse be removed, so we had it cut down, and the sawn-up limbs and trunk set aside for firewood.  I moved what I could to our woodpile on the other side of the yard, but the lower parts of the main trunk were sawn into butts so large I couldn’t move them. They stayed where they’d been cut until I could get to them.

Despite being a city kid, I know how to split wood.  I learned the art in the mid 1970’s when my brother-in-law and I tackled a gigantic and very well-seasoned maple log on my father’s property. That tree was as hard as stone: it took us a week with mauls and wedges to get it to burning size pieces.  Some years ago I owned a country cabin heated with wood, and kept the stove stoked with wood from the property. In 1981 a windstorm knocked over a 70-foot red oak;  I split that entire tree into firewood with a wedge and maul in the course of a couple of weekends. 

Thirty years ago I’d have done this splitting job with a wedge and a maul, too; but I’m no longer so young as I like to think I am, albeit somewhat smarter and with a great deal more income. It felt like I was cheating, but I rented a power splitter from the local hardware store for the weekend.

Those huge lower butts couldn’t be moved intact. I partially sliced through them with a chain saw and used the maul and wedge to crack them up into pieces I could lift into the wheelbarrow. They were carried to the woodpile whence the rest of the tree sat waiting.  That took me most of last Friday; once finished with that task I picked up the splitter, and towed it home.  Saturday was Splitting Day.

The splitter is an awe-inspiring machine—no, that’s not the right word, “scary” is a better one.  I’m (very sensibly) scared of my chain saw but this thing is in another league entirely.  It consists of a gigantic hydraulic piston with a wedge on one end.  The piston pump is driven by a 5.5-HP gasoline engine.  I have no idea how much force it generates, but it must be in excess of 20 tons, easily.  The piston is of a size I remember seeing on landing gear for a C-130: a good four feet long and 8” in diameter. Needless to say it’s plastered with warning stickers, telling you not to get your hands under the wedge, as if anyone could be stupid enough to do something like that (What am I thinking?  OF COURSE there are people that stupid…).

Even though the splitter is the size of a small field artillery piece I was a little unnerved by the fact that I couldn’t see it out the back window of my truck as I towed it.  Halfway home I actually stopped to check to be sure it was there.  Since I couldn't see it I wasn’t about to back into the driveway with it on the hitch ball, not wishing to demolish my mailbox. Once home I unhitched it and rolled it into position manually.

It’s pretty simple to use: once you start the motor you use the lever on one side to move the piston up and down.  Anything in the way of the piston is pushed against the baseplate, and thereby rendered asunder.  I rented it for an entire weekend because I wasn’t sure how well it would work, but it went through a cord and a half of wood in about 3 hours, cracking it into fireplace-sized chunks with aplomb.  Sunday morning my neighbor Rick borrowed it and went through wood he’d had in his yard for a couple of years, at least as much as I’d done.

My late sugar maple was made of beautiful wood, clean and straight-grained without a blemish or knot in it.  It would have made gorgeous furniture, and if I’d had any woodworking skill at all I might have preserved it for such a purpose.  But it seems to be the fate of all trees, even those that temporarily become dining room tables or elegant chests of drawers, eventually to end up being consigned to a fire or eaten by vermin. 

In the end, the same alternatives await me.