Close Encounters: My Terrible Box Elder
The glow of the moon caused the tree to cast tentacle-shaped shadows across my bed. I felt as though an octopus were embracing me. I recall this as my earliest childhood fear, as a 5-year-old in 1948. But the fear went away when I realized that the "monster" was just a tree--a giant box elder--outside my window. Because of its 12-foot circumference, my family called it the "big tree." I climbed it, swang from it, and hugged it while counting to 50 in a game we called "no bears are out tonight." But the tree was old and beyond its prime, ready to die. Or so it seemed. Little did I know that this old box elder would influence my life for years to come.
When I was 11, my cousin and I built a treehouse on its huge limbs. As we lifted and secured the lumber, my cousin ripped the tree's bark, hacked at the limbs, and drove huge spikes into the trunk. I asked him why he was cutting limbs that weren't in our way. "To improve the view," he said. When completed, our insult to architecture looked like it belonged in the town dump, but we were proud of it. Each time we climbed to the treehouse, we carried up another toy or a piece of junk. We never gave a thought to how much weight the limbs could hold.
One day while playing in the treehouse, we heard a loud cracking. Our rickety house dropped several inches and stopped. We looked at each other--eyes big as golf balls--and I yelled, "Let's get out of here!"
It was too late. The walls collapsed, the anchor spikes and wires snapped, and our proud creation--with us inside--plummeted 17 feet to the ground and smashed in a heap.
My cousin screamed in pain as I crawled out from under the broken boards and ran for help. I escaped without a scratch, but his body was cut and bruised, and his leg was broken at the hip. He spent the entire summer in the hospital. After that, we called the tree "the terrible box elder."
Years passed, and my family moved to a new house on the other side of our property. We tore down the old house, but the terrible box elder refused to die. Its limbs were rotting and falling off. Its huge trunk had twisted grotesquely, and its height was only half what it once had been.
Several people said we ought to cut it down, but my father wouldn't hear of it. He could never understand why people look down on box elders or why they call them a "trash" tree. Their limbs might not withstand storms as an oak's do, but is that a crime? They reproduce like crazy, but is that a crime? The fact is, box elders provide comforting shade for people and a haven for wildlife. And with a yard full of box elders, you won't be pestered by furniture makers, knocking on the door, trying to buy your trees.
The years rolled by and I inherited the old tree. I married, had children, and watched them climb the tree, swing from its branches, play in its shade, and even build another treehouse, though close to the ground.
As the box elder's limbs crumbled, new ones sprouted in a strange fashion: Instead of growing up, they grew straight out. Defying gravity, some reached 30 feet from the trunk. One day, while we picnicked under the tree, our grill got too hot and scorched the leaves of one of those limbs. The next day, the limb broke and smashed the grill. How strange, I thought, it's almost as if the tree were retaliating.
As the years passed, the tall, stately maple tree in our yard was split in two by lightning. Our four beautiful elms were lost to Dutch elm disease, and two oaks perished for unknown reasons. But the terrible box elder refused to die. It had become so decrepit that I thought of cutting it down; yet it held so many childhood memories that I couldn't bring myself to do it. And although people kept remarking about its unsightly appearance, I was starting to think that the old tree looked rather nice.
My wife and I began to plan our long-awaited dream home, which would stand on the exact spot of my first childhood home. The new house would be big, and the box elder was in the way. The tree had to go.
But a strange thing happened: Just hours before the tree's date with the dozer, the government granted it a stay of execution. A building inspector stopped by and told me about the plan to rebuild the road in front of our place. He said the house would need to be built 10 feet farther back--thus allowing room for the tree.
The hardest part of saving the tree was convincing my wife that such an unsightly tree should stand in front of a new house. But I assured her that the tree wouldn't live much longer; soon it would die on its own.
So the tree remained, and we had no problem with the 10-foot change in setback. But the builder had a problem: a stubborn tree.
While digging the footings, he cursed the tree's huge roots as they resisted the bite of his backhoe. The tree retaliated: A cylinder broke on his machine and sprayed the builder with hot oil. He struck back by taking a chainsaw to the roots. As the walls went up, the tree fought back, its branches knocking him down as the wind blew. He cursed the tree some more, grabbed his chainsaw and cut off numerous limbs. The tree struck again: A branch bumped him off the scaffold and sent him plummeting 12 feet to the ground, causing a spinal injury. As the ambulance sped him to the hospital, I thought, "This is crazy! It seems like the tree has a mind of its own and resents being cut."
When we moved into our new house, I received a pleasant surprise: The glow of the moon caused the tree to cast octopuslike tentacles across my bed. I hadn't planned it that way; it just happened.
I thought the severe root cutting would surely doom the tree, but it continued to live. Several years passed; then a storm came through and broke one of the two remaining large limbs.
By then, I was becoming suspicious of the tree. Throughout its life, everyone who caused it harm paid a price. I am not a superstitious person. And I would have been quite foolish to think that this tree had some type of hex or jinx. But, to be on the safe side, rather than trim the tree myself, I called a professional.
The tree trimmer laughed when I told him to be careful because of what had happened to others who cut the tree. Sizing up the broken limb, he said, "No problem," and started his chainsaw. Suddenly, after cutting through the limb, he threw his saw down and ran away screaming, as a black cloud swirled around him. The limb was hollow, and a hive of bees was expressing displeasure at having their home destroyed.
The doctor at the emergency room called it one of the worst bee-sting cases he'd seen: more than 50 stings to his face, neck and arms.
"That's it!" I said. "I'll never let anyone touch a saw to that tree again. Jinx or no jinx, I'm going to let it die and rot away on its own."
Another storm came and the last big limb broke, blocking the driveway. It would have to be cut and removed. This time I would do the job myself.
I sharpened the chainsaw teeth and pulled the rope. Holding the saw to the limb, I felt a chill. Was something terrible about to happen?
I shut off the saw and sat down. Looking up, I thought, "This tree is just a shell of what it used to be and here I plan to cut off its last large limb. Besides the trunk, the only thing remaining will be two large limb stubs and a small cluster of new shoots." I could almost hear it pleading to me, "Please don't cut me anymore!"
I stood up, grabbed the saw, and started the engine. Bracing my arms and legs, I brought the saw down on the limb and squeezed the throttle. The saw growled, its sharp teeth bit into the limb, and large chips of wood flew. As the saw sunk deeper, the limb started to tremble, its lifeline to earth slowly severed. Suddenly it snapped, fell to the ground with a crash, and then . . . nothing.
Nothing terrible happened.
Walking up to the tree, I placed my hand on its twisted, rotting bark. I thought, "I am the proud owner of this terrible-looking tree. A living, growing, biological blunder that means so much to me. If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then I am touching a masterpiece of nature, an inspiration, and a treasure chest of memories."
That night the full moon cast its light across my bed. But the tentacle-shaped shadows were gone. The tree had given its all to me and had nothing left to give.
Larry Ahlman author of Missing in the Boundary Waters.