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WHEN ONE TREE MATTERS
by Walter L. Meagher

If it were one tree in a forest, the adversities of life would not be noticed; but it grows against the patio wall, a solitary tree of little stature, as conspicuous as a hobbling man.  Its nearest neighbors are conifers shaped like gothic spires, reminders of the dignity of the Appian Way.  The leaf stem of quaking aspen is flat, as if it had been accidentally compressed, the reason its leaves toss and turn in the gentlest breeze.  There seems no conceivable utility in such a feature, except my pleasure, or yours.  If the leaves were a sail, the boat would win every race in a slack wind.

Some branches are dead. They arouse a gardener’s urge for tidiness, and a condo owner’s wish to keep up good appearances.  But dead wood attracts insects and insects attract birds.  Nature does business by different rules.  For other values I will endure a scraggly tree, never forming a dome as round as Michelangelo fashioned.  There are two axe bites in the outer bark; the tree is at hazard from the experimental violence of younger men.  I asked Tom - condominium manager - to tea to see the tree and maybe a bird.

  aspen

We have a reverence for tools.  It is a sign of intelligence to put common materials to new uses.  A golden-fronted woodpecker flew to the quaking aspen (also called quivering, golden, and mountain aspen; and ‘noisy leaf’ by Indians living in areas where it grows, often along river bottoms, forming gallery woods in the west), carrying a pecan nut, harvested across the street.  The woodpecker hammered the nut into one of the V’s formed where two higher branches join and part.  The V was his kitchen, his butcher’s table, where he laid the nut’s goodness bare; he used it again, and a week later, till he tired of nuts or the supply was depleted.  Tom didn’t see this woodpecker; the day he came there were other surprises.

A warbler is a small bird with a slender beak - often a collage of colorful markings - that strains our eyes and bends our neck to see it.  Warblers come to San Miguel in winter and, one day, a Wilson’s warbler arrived, scoured the aspen trunk, first up, then down.  Tom!  Do you see it?  A Wilson’s warbler!  I thought he would be excited.  To see a warbler is a pleasure learned, as much as to enjoy a Bach chaconne.

Tom owned it was a tree he had considered cutting down, but he had not made the cuts in it.  While it is the least appealing in appearance of all the condo trees - and this is a paradox of Nature - it is the most useful to birds.  A yellow-rumped warbler (you can’t miss the rump and the flicking tail) came to the aspen as tea was being poured.  Look!  Two warblers, at the same time, in our miserable tree.  Warblers move so quickly round, atop and under twigs.  I can never steady my binoculars on them.  I have given up.  Instead I look for the markings one can see with the naked eye; their behavior alone identifies them as warblers.  Tom, you can’t cut down a tree that warblers visit!  He stayed awhile; he wasn’t sure warblers were special but he felt conservation was important and promised to leave the quaking aspen to itself.   

 

 

 

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