The dogwood has been dying for some time.
Every year there are fewer of those big beautiful pink flowers. Every year the leaves go brown and fall a little earlier.
I’m not an arborist. But a guy who does know about these things came by the house the other day and told us the culprit was carpenter ants, and that the tree was too far gone to save.
So now it needs to come down.
I’ve known that for a while actually, in the way that you know something bad is brewing but you put it off because you don’t want to deal with the consequences.
Part of the context is my love of trees and their role in the ecosystem. Part of it is the acres of trees Long Island has lost in its wars with Southern pine beetles and Asian long-horned beetles. Part of it is our region’s storm history.
Irene and Sandy felled trees by the thousands. Dozens came down within a few blocks of our house. Alarmed, many among us chose to take down more — healthy trees doomed by their proximity to houses or power lines. It was understandable but lamentable. I’m still not quite used to the altered line between trees and sky.
What’s more, the dogwood isn’t any ol’ tree. It’s the last tree, the only one left of the six trees we had when we moved in 27 years ago.
The two out front went first. One died, but we waited to have it cut down, hoping somehow it would bloom again. The other was too weak and too tall and too close to two houses and swaying too much in the wind, but I still have misgivings all these years later.
Spring rains seven years ago uprooted a magnificent pin oak that was close to 100 feet tall, and it crashed onto the porch and garage. Three months later, a black cherry split and grazed the side of the house, and that was the end of it. The fifth tree, another dogwood, I took down myself after it died, waging an epic battle against roots not ready to be evicted.
Now we’ve got this final dogwood in the backyard. Its modesty is at war in our brains with its past brilliance. A half-dozen dead branches emerge from the greenery that’s still left, jabbing the sky with their austere beauty.
I’m a sucker for a dead tree. Everyone in my family knows that. Dead trees make for great photos, and I’ve taken my share. The dead tree gnarled and utterly alone along Maine’s rocky coast. The dead tree clinging to the side of California’s Moro Rock, framing a gorgeous vista of the mountains of the Great Western Divide. Any number of dead trees on any number of hiking trails side by side with their living brethren, both ends of the life cycle.
The charms of the dogwood’s dead branches are different. They’ve become perches for birds from all over the neighborhood — mockingbirds, cardinals, the occasional blue jay, finches, mourning doves. The sound track they provide is fantastic, and I’m guessing the view is as good for them as it is for us. Watching them on a wire or a roofline won’t be the same.
We all reshape our landscapes in ways large and small. Our choices say a lot about us.
Trees bind us to our land. They give us memories. Often, they outlive us. That will be the case for the two new trees out front. The redbud was planted in 2010, the day my grandson was born. The green leaf Japanese maple was dedicated to my father-in-law. They look great, and they’re getting stronger every year, and they’ll always be linked to the people who inspired them.
That’s also true for the sapling in the backyard. It’s a gray dogwood, and it came from my aunt, one of 10 stick-and-root trees she received as a membership gift from the Arbor Day Foundation.
As we begin to take down the dying dogwood — a task we plan to accomplish slowly — we’ll find solace in that sapling just a few feet to the right.
It’s about 18 inches tall. It’s gonna take a while. But it’ll be good, for us and for the birds.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.