The Oak

There was a tree across the street from me. A bur oak, with a mighty trunk wider than a steamer, and curving branches that stretched all the way across the street to shade my yard. In its crown lived a mischievous family of squirrels, and a cast of birds of every size and color. One morning, I found beneath it a perfect nest I could cup in one hand, and I liked to imagine the family of hummingbirds who’d been raised in it.

small bird's nest on the palm of my hand.

The tree presided over the most delightful shade garden on my side of the street, with moss of a thousand colors and textures. There was shaggy moss, and funky moss, and velvet moss as rich as the sleeve of a queen. Rarely did a blade of grass try to grow there, and I was fine with that. Only the moss, which somehow held moisture in the air all around it, and being in that shady realm was like a caress from Mother Earth.

I was not the only one so enchanted — once I caught my oldest daughter out there on her belly, sneaking a cigarette. I couldn’t blame her. There were never enough excuses to delight in its shade.

It’s gone now.

The tree, the shade, the hummingbirds, the moss garden.

On August 10th of last year, a derecho blew in town and felled 70% of our city’s trees, including the majestic oak that had stood sentinel at the edge of my neighbor’s lawn for more than 200 years.

Immediately after the derecho
Large sawed tree trunk with a sign which reads "When this tree sprouted, it was in the Louisiana Purchase."

Yes, I counted the rings. And when no one was looking, I rested my cheek against its fallen trunk and cried. I thanked it for the beauty and the shade; I thanked it on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of creatures it had fed in its lifetime: squirrels, deer, turkeys, chipmunks; bugs and butterflies and moths, and a myriad of other things most people never see or think about.

It went down fighting. It took half of my maple on the way down, but I don’t blame it. I still love that tree.

We lost so many trees that day: the spruce on the corner with the Christmas lights which had been a landmark for decades, the sycamore two blocks over with the most gorgeous patina of bark, the curving white oak which completed the tunnel when you drove down Forest Drive, and the black walnut that hosted a family of barred owls every summer.

a forest of damaged oak trees marked with an orange "x"

After the storm, the city came out and condemned the broken trees with an orange X on the trunk. Arborists rolled in from all over the Midwest to assist. They trimmed them, cut them, and hauled away the remnants, leaving only the trunks. Then more trucks came, wrenched the trunks from the ground and chewed them into mulch. Our parks and parkways became cemeteries, each lost tree memorialized by a pile of its own leavings.

a flat grassy yard with 10 empty circles of dirt.

Eventually that was gone too. Now all that’s left are lost circles of earth, where new grass sprouts like a young man’s first beard. By next year, they’ll be forgotten — most of them at least — but some of us will remember our favorites.

There was a time when I could walk the mile to Bever Park fully in the shade. Those days are gone now, and won’t be back in our lifetime, or at least not mine.

The sky is a brand-new shape now, and my neighbors and I are left grappling with what to do with our now-sunny yards. The hostas wilt, the ferns wither, and the bur oak I planted in honor of neighbor’s tree will take decades to make sufficient shade to host a moss garden. It’s up to me to make a new start on this quarter-acre of city-yard I call mine.

I thought long and hard about it, about the things that matter to me versus the ‘what-will-the-neighbors-think’, and in the end it was the things that matter that won.

a packet of wildflower seeds and native plant in the background

I decided to build a meadow. Or maybe it’s a prairie — or perhaps it’s oak savanna. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m taking botany courses online. I’ve collected a fat pile of gardening books. I’m learning all the native plants by sight, and feel, and smell. I’m googling natural pest control techniques. I’m shopping restoration nurseries. I’m getting up early on weekends to weed. I’m counting the caterpillars on the milkweed outside.

Most of all, I’m hoping: Hoping my yard serves the native species which have managed to survive despite the depletion of 99.9% of the natural habitat in Iowa; hoping others see some value in it and are inspired to build their own gardens.

Mostly dirt, with my new plants looking small planted across it

It’s not beautiful yet, or even pretty — at least not by any master gardener standards — but I’ve got a growing fan base. There’s a bold robin who watches every move I make. There’s a trio of young squirrels who wrestle among the black-eyed Susans, and most mornings, birds serenade from every window. Dare I say it’s bursting with life?

And while my next-door neighbor mows the perfect tartan plaid on his Tru-Green lawn, I grow violets. There’s dogwood, milkweed, blue sage, coneflower, and bergamot. And there’s more than few things that make my neighbors cringe, like pokeweed, snakeroot, daisy fleabane, and Canada goldenrod.

There are wonders here too, like a milkweed leaf bejeweled with a ladybug — an actual ladybug and not one of those knockoffs from China. One Sunday a monarch flew up and performed a ballet just for me, and last night a barred owl delivered a sermon from what’s left of my maple.

And I have decided that even if my neighbors never find it pretty, there are enough creatures that do: chipmunks and chickadees and cardinals, and once, a rose-breasted grosbeak. And when the leaves of my new oak make a carpet of fallen leaves on the garden bed, which winter tucks in with a coverlet of snow, I will imagine the delights that might find me next spring.

I think the old oak would approve.

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