The tree at my window looks like it’s fixin’ to die. I can’t claim that this red maple is special in botanical or cultural terms, but esthetically it stands at a critical point in the approach to our home in eastern Maine, and for many years its nearness to my second-floor office has given me an up-close view of life in the arboreal canopy.
A red maple, generally smaller than sugar maples and rising on a smooth, slender trunk, is often seen in wet places and called, alternatively, “swamp maple.” But in the case of my tree, it is a solid citizen indeed, apparently finding the water it needs from its proximity to a spring that once fed a shallow well for previous owners. Its trunk is bulky, nearly eight feet in circumference and broken into rough, oblong plates flared at top and bottom from the trunk in the manner of a shagbark hickory.
Like other members of its species, large and small, a red maple is a tree for all seasons. Its feathery flowers bloom in spring before the twigs put forth their leaves, spreading a shimmer of deep red against the sky. As the season advances, the contrast of green leaf and bright red stem lends a vibrant tint to wet places from Maine to Texas and Oklahoma. Then, as our wildflowers fade in autumn, the red maple takes on the job of keeping splashes of crimson in the landscape.
Colin Tudge, a British science writer, has defined a tree as “a big plant with a stick up the middle.” Through the seasons, an observer can keep adding bits and pieces to that barebones framework. In winter, my presence at the window sometimes startles black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches as they probe the maple’s bare branches for insect cocoons. In spring, I am often eyeball to eyeball with chestnut-sided warblers, redstarts, and great-crested flycatchers coming through here during migration. And, in late autumn, both cedar and bohemian waxwings land on its branches to survey the small fruit ripened on our ornamental crabapples just to the north of the maple.
About 20 years ago, in putting a wing on the house to add a garage and my office, we did the red maple no favors. Preparatory work with a backhoe cut some of its roots and disrupted drainage patterns, and the tree has looked a little peaked ever since. It gave us a scare a couple of summers back when many of its leaves turned gray and shriveled. An arborist diagnosed a blight of some kind, but the tree recovered without drastic treatments. Now, it looks badly stressed again. Leaves on all the branches on its south side are scarce, and those that unfurled are small and limp. On the north side, the leaves look healthy enough but hang on in diminished numbers. Meanwhile, two or three red squirrels have taken over the tree, obviously attracted by its unprecedented explosion of seeds.
A red maple’s winged seeds, those papery, two-pronged gizmos children like to try to balance on their noses like an old-fashioned pair of pince-nez spectacles, develop in late spring. This year there was a shower of them onto the lawn, while others clogged the gutters bordering our roof. Not content with the treasure of fallen seeds, the squirrels romp from branch to branch, snipping off the ends of twigs and bringing down clumps of leaves as well as seeds. The perky little rodents descend soon after, feeding on the fallen seeds or dashing away with them stuffed into their cheek pouches.
The red maple’s canopy is in tatters. Large patches of sky shine through the skimpy growth, giving the tree a forlorn appearance in comparison with its robust relatives across the field. Did it put forth all these seeds in one last riotous burst of life? Resident robins and jays seem to shun its once leafy branches as occasional perches, as if they suspect some permanent decline.
The arborist is on call once more. Yes, hope springs eternal. But experience proclaims that witless nature, even at our windows, can’t always be nice.