There’s a humble maple tree in the backyard that has worked its way into our hearts.
You probably wouldn’t call this most ordinary of the nearly 150 kinds of maples beautiful any season of the year. Other maples have handsome leaves and are colorful in autumn. My husband is enamored of his two new showy maples, one with very dark leaves, one that turns crimson in the fall.
The unremarkable tree behind the house is no one’s favorite. Its leaves are nondescript and just turn a dull yellow in the fall. Silver Maple
But not long after we moved back to Iowa with a toddler, we discovered that this plain neighbor casts a fine dense shadow. Soon our two-year-old was digging in a sandbox beside the trunk, screened from the sun and heat by a leafy green canopy.
We found that as the sultry summer sun lowered in the afternoon sky, the maple’s blessed shade sheltered our small patio and west windows.
The branches of the maple were a little too high for even a bigger kid to climb, but my husband roped a tire swing to one stout limb. When our son gained some years and inches, a knotted climbing rope was added.
The year my aunt brought some ash from Mount St. Helens volcano, small bottles of it, buried in the sandbox–still shielded by the tree–became a treasure hunt for our son and his Tough Guys Club.
During summer thunderstorms, we marvel at the maple’s flexibility and tenacity. The wind whips and churns, flinging writhing branches in a wild dance. We try to imagine the huge network of roots underground anchoring it during violent storms.
Remembering words like photosynthesis and xylem and phloem from biology, I ponder our ordinary tree–piping water and minerals up from its roots, mixing them with carbon dioxide absorbed from the air through its leaves, making food for the tree, and donating precious oxygen to us.
We do nothing for this faithful servant except to carry away the winged seeds it sends whirly-gigging down in the spring and its crisp curled leaves–the bland color of cornflakes–in the fall our son didn’t mind helping rake leaves after he’d had a good noisy play in a crunchy mound of them.
The tree’s skeleton in winter is often defined by an outline of snow. The light from a full moon seeps through its branches, casting a bony shadow against the ground. The now towering tree provides a safe place for fox squirrels to winter, curled up in their penthouse nest, where their babies are born in spring.
A few weeks later, the newly leafed maple is a haven for migratory birds. Several springs I have been serenaded by a rose-breasted grosbeak perched in the tree while I planted Heavenly Blue morning glories. And it has housed its share of nestlings, usually robins.
The uncelebrated tree was decimated during a March ice storm in 1990. Heaps of budded branches–large and small–crashed and tinkled, spilling ice on the frozen lawn. Remaining branches jutted awkwardly, looking as if a huge monster had twisted and dismembered the tree.
Photos: March 7, 1990, and the next day.
My husband did some first aid on it and called a tree trimmer, but the maple mainly needed to heal, to exert its own resilience. In spite of our worrying, it has done just fine and has returned to its main job–being our chief shade tree.
The sandbox is gone. So are the climbing rope and tire swing. In fact, our son has a little girl of his own. But today, cloistered in the shade of the maple, I enjoy a mug of coffee and contemplate the blessings of one ordinary tree.
Published in the April 1998 issue of Midwest Living Magazine.
Aired on Our American Stories September 18, 2020. Produced by Matt “Montie” Montgomery. (8 minutes)