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Front Porch: Death makes room for life – and three trees for future

There they are, three small subalpine fir trees in my front yard. They stand fresh and new with their roots beginning to move (hopefully) from their root ball into the ground as they seek to establish themselves.

Just a few weeks ago, three tall ponderosa pine trees stood next to where the new trees are making their new home, big brothers whose size would have dwarfed the new trees, captured their sunlight and whose roots would likely have been fierce competitors for the nourishment the soil has to give. But they are no more.

I wrote recently about those behemoths, especially the gentle giant closest to my house, as we were trying to save them. They had full green canopies, but as an arborist told us, trees can look healthy yet have poor or damaged structure. That, unfortunately, turned out to be the diagnosis for our ponderosas.

The windstorm in November showed us the first signs that there might be trouble underground, and indeed, that was the case. The storm didn’t damage the trees. What damaged them was having been buried for 40 years, when backfill changed the slope of the terrain when our house was built and 3 feet of dirt was piled around the trunks of the trees in what would become the front yard. The buried bark became compressed and spongy, and a reverse taper was created along the buried trunks. This made for an unstable situation, especially for one tree that leaned noticeably toward the house.

The trees survived the windstorm, but they were not going to survive the effects from earlier poor landscaping practices. My vote was to leave them in place and hope for the best. My husband, citing liability issues and the desire not to have one or more trees cut the house in half in a subsequent storm, argued for removal.

He was right, of course, but I was really sad when we made the decision. I understood this would not be the loss of a person or even a beloved pet. It would just be trees. But I’m funny about my trees, and I took this very personally. I’ve loved trees ever since I was 5 and first climbed up into our neighbor’s weeping willow tree, and from its branches, saw my world – the block we lived on – in a whole new way.

Rose, a character in the “Rose is Rose” cartoon strip, has her “let it be” tree for leaning upon during times of stress, and I had my “big boy” ponderosa. Often when I walked by it just outside my front door, I’d give it a pat. The tree was steady, sturdy and constant. Not to mention beautiful.

So arrangements were made. Because there would be three trees to remove, it made sense to bring in a crane to make it a one-day event. It was quite an operation. The road in front of our house was blocked off. The trees were taken down in segments. A crew fed branches into a chipper. A skid steer lifted trunk segments into a log truck. Sweeping, raking, cleaning – and by late afternoon, three nearly ground-level stumps were all that remained, stumps that would be munched down about 12-14 inches below ground level a few days later.

It was as if the ponderosas had never been there.

But there would be trees again. I chose subalpine firs because they are evergreens (a requirement) that will be narrow and will let in more daylight than most other pines and firs. And so we planted the three little trees.

Oh sure, we’ll put in some other things, too, but all things begin with trees, as far as I’m concerned.

This planting will be different than all the others we’ve done over the past 50 years. We put in arborvitae and fruit trees at our first house in 1970, and I can see they are really big and thriving whenever I drive past. When we moved to our current house in the late 1980s, we put in a few fruit trees, now large and full as well. When we lost trees in our backyard during the ice storm of 1996, we replaced them with tiny ponderosas that are now over my head.

But these new trees – well, I’m not likely to see them all tall and full and mature. Age is limiting when it comes to these things, but I will enjoy ensuring that they get a good start. Planting a tree is, after all, an act of faith in the future.

There’s an old Chinese proverb that states: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@ Previous columns are available at columnists.