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Peterson: Issues with trees a cause for despair

Published: Thursday, June 5, 2014 10:04 p.m. CDT

In addition to moving about a half dozen trees from city right of way onto our property a number of years ago, we planted several different varieties of trees to prevent deforestation of our yard.

We had read about the vicious emerald ash borer that killed millions of ash trees across the upper northeast of the U.S., spreading into Michigan then hop-scotching into Illinois about seven or eight years ago.

Hundreds or thousands of ash trees have been killed in McHenry County, and the reason there are so many is because the ash tree was seen as the ideal tree to provide shade in the new subdivisions that were sprouting up.

The emerald ash borer took care of that, starving the trees of vital nutrients. Like water and everything that goes in it.

And I’m old enough to remember Dutch elm disease, which pretty much wiped out elm trees in the U.S. on urban and suburban boulevards. And they were stately, large old trees that had to be cut down and destroyed in cities across the country, including in the neighborhood I grew up in.

With those warnings in mind, we weren’t about to plant the same single species of trees in our yard, which for nearly 50 years was nothing but lawn. Not a single bush, much less a tree.

As much as we like maple trees and their huge, leafy canopies – and having a yard full of them would have been beautiful – I’m wary of maple trees. Maple trees are everywhere. The McHenry County Conservation District even taps the trees in the late winter/early spring for their maple syrup. In the fall, they brighten the countryside in shades of yellow and red.

They are so magnificent that Canadians emblazoned their national flag with a red maple leaf, which seems a little odd, but then their dollar coin has a loon on it, and it is known affectionately as the loony. The Canadians are a gentle people.

But my fear was the maple tree would be devastated by a bug. Dutch elm disease is caused by a fungus, but it is carried from tree to tree by beetles. And the emerald ash borer is another beetle.

We planted willow, oak, maple, birch and flowering crab trees, along with several types of pine trees. One tree had to be cut down this spring, and I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but it had white flowers for about a week in the spring and grew to about 30 feet in height.

But it developed a huge crack down the middle of the trunk and had to be cut down before it blew down and caused real damage. These weren’t beetles on steroid that cracked the tree, just Mother Nature having her way.

A predecessor to our maple tree – another maple tree – had to be cut down because it was leaning dangerously toward the east, toward our house, and it was cracking, if my memory serves me correctly, and it invariably doesn’t. That was a real defeat because it was starting to provide shade on the west side of our fully exposed house.

But we replanted a number of years ago with the oak, maple and birch trees, and I am happy to report, they are all doing well, growing straight and finally providing the much-needed shade we need on the west side of our house where the summer sun burns mercilessly. The willow is growing gracefully in the side yard.

Eight or nine years ago, I made a heat shield for the big picture window on the west side of our house. I found a large piece of cardboard and strengthened it with wood lathes, then covered one side with the shiny side of aluminum foil. The heat deflector fit perfectly into the window, and the aluminum foil bounced the summer sun’s rays back out the window, helping keep the house cool.

So far, we haven’t had to use the heat shield because of the shade the maple provides, but it’s still early, and the sun could travel farther north as summer progresses, taking away the natural shade.

But I’m worried about the oak tree. I read in the paper last week about the state spraying for gypsy moths, and when they are caterpillars, their favorite food is oak leaves. We have a young oak tree. Gypsy moths caterpillars have voracious appetites and can easily strip an oak of its leaves, eventually killing it.

We’ve already lost two trees to cracks, and now, gypsy moths could be attracted to our single, delectable oak. And then, and it’s only a matter of time, a beetle will go after maples, leaving a birch clump that is finicky anyway and the willow. And no shade.

Maybe despair was the reason no trees were planted in our yard for 50 years. Something I’m beginning to come to terms with.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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