A Single Tree
The saltwater farm near Middle Bay in Brunswick where we once lived, a magnificent sugar maple grew at the end of the driveway. In all months that tree was lovely, but it carried a special beauty in September. I would spend a few moments on those autumn evenings standing on the deck, watching the tree quietly, almost discreetly, surrender its leaves to the earth at its feet.
When we first moved from the Midwest to coastal Maine, we were captured by the power of trees.Indiana farmland is flat and vacant. By contrast, the entire state of Maine seemed wildly green and leafed. The acres where we were raising sheep and hay had once been the site of a thriving shipbuilding industry owned by the Pennell family. Their homes were surrounded by open fields, the tall trees long ago harvested for ship construction. But the forest was close at hand, and we were eager to bring shade near our house.
Our sugar maple began as a tiny sapling, not much more than four feet high, that my husband found huddled in a corner of the forest one spring. The maple was surrounded by taller, stronger trees forming the upper canopy of the forest, and, although it had grown to its present height, there wasn't much chance for a long survival. So he dug it up, brought it home, and planted it in our almost treeless meadow.
Overnight it grew like Jack's beanstalk, responding to rich soil, water, and lots of sunshine. A few years passed, and one winter a snowplow hacked off half of the tree. We took a roll of tree tape and mended the mangled branches, attaching them to the original trunk. We were hopeful but not optimistic for the maple's survival.
But it continued to grow, and soon it was difficult to mow under it. Some branches hung low, thick, and heavy. Others reached toward the sun until this maple towered over the garage. The tree became a favorite climbing spot of the children. From its upper branches, the offshore islands - Crow and Birch - were visible. From its lower branches, the children were invisible, transforming the tree into a place of magic. I would come home from work and find two or three of them hanging upside down, rather like opossums, or swinging from limb to limb like a new breed of North American monkey. That one maple defined our days with its winter outline, tiny spring leaves, rich green of summer, and autumn hues.
Then, one September, after we had moved inland to a large farm in Bowdoinham and our children were growing in a different place, I overheard our daughter say, "My maple turned red overnight." Her maple. Outside her bedroom window on this new farm grew a tall and rather thinly leafed red maple, not a tree that any child could climb or would choose for an adventure site, but another plant of certain potential. Now that it was red, dressed for the coming season, it had taken on an aura of elegance. Her tree had changed as she was changing with time and the season.
That year my husband and our younger son planted a nursery-bought tree, almost an ironic gesture, for we live in the middle of a forest on a tree and sheep farm, not in a meadow now. But it was the wish of our son, having only discovered weeping willows a few months earlier, to know secrets behind drooping boughs. With a child's eye for transformation, he saw immediately the potential in weeping willow trees for pirate wars and hideouts. His willow flourished, planted next to the pond where he spent his summers, both tree and son growing as the seasons passed.
I think often of that sugar maple on the shore of Middle Bay where we once lived. It should be showing signs of the passing season now. I can still see it, for the most marvelous part of that tree was its color. To me, it seemed to be the entire reason for fall in Maine. The weather had to change, cool down, shorten its days so that this particular maple tree could reveal its true beauty - an orange more brilliant than an oriole, an orange that faded on the edges to peach and salmon and sometimes speckled itself with yellow-green blotches, a vision where, for a moment at the end of day, I could see all the beauty of the season in a single tree.