The sweet gum tree was losing battles with time and the elements. Three years ago, more than half the tree’s mast gave in to a thunderstorm. Last week, the remainder of top and a portion of the trunk was blown away by a strong south wind that swept across the prairie.
Still, the old tree stood, a 20-foot wood monolith with short, broken arms.
The tree wasn’t really that old, but it had led a challenging life. The sweet gum came to the farm in 1969, the same year the U.S. made good on President Kennedy’s pledge to land an American on the moon in that decade.
It was a few years old then, and about 5 feet tall. Its nearest neighbor was an aging soft maple that dated to the 1800s. The sweet gum stood in the maple’s morning shade for a few years, then the neighbor was gone.
In full sunlight the sweet gum thrived. In a few years it was sending branches out to the nearby power lines. The power company diligently trimmed limbs over the years. A portal was opened and maintained for the electric lines to pass through. The lines had been there since the latter part of the 1940s when the magic of electricity was delivered to the farmstead.
Then the utility company turned the trimming over to a contractor and several year ago a crew removed nearly all the limbs from the side of the tree where the power lines were located.
The crew leader explained the tree was too close to the wires and the power company would not want a short-term trimming job. He was right. The tree was much too close to the energy providing wires.
It didn’t seem to be when it was set out as a 5-foot sapling, but when it grew to 50 feet, numerous limbs shaded the power lines. After the severe trimming, the sweet gum went into decline.
As life continued to leave the sweet gum it attracted numerous woodpeckers. On rare occasions a huge pilated woodpecker visited and hammered away in search of food.
As time passed, fewer and fewer limbs leafed out each spring and an increasing number of dead limbs shared the tree top. That is when the eagles came. The eagles enjoyed sitting on a large lifeless limb at the top of the sweet gum when all the other deciduous trees were leafed out.
Usually there would be one, but on a few rare occasions two would share the perch. They would fish in the nearby pond and threaten the resident squirrels. One summer, the whole eagle family came, and the two young birds decimated the squirrel population before they moved on.
Red tailed hawks also frequented the stark, gray limbs, but not while an eagle was present. Crows harassed the hawks but never went near the larger birds of prey. Hawks and eagles were not frequent visitors and when they were absent, small birds would gather on the dead limbs.
Squirrels also resided in the hollow space that was created in the decaying trunk. Even in decline, the sweet gum was a valuable asset to wild life.
When I cleaned up the fallen limbs around the tree, I noticed a small sprout with a few leaves on it near the base of the trunk. The old sweet gum was losing its war with time and the elements, but it had not surrendered yet.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.