Recognition of a tree as “maple tree” must have come early to me, one of those bits of knowledge so integral as to be dateless, absorbed with the increasing lexicon of names and terms which filter into a child’s mind from the conversations of surrounding adults.
Two maples stood in the front dooryard of my grandfather’s Vermont farmstead, one on either side of the graveled driveway, each spreading grey-black branches in a high, wide circle above tidy plots which I learned to call “lawn” as opposed to the rougher pastures which lay beyond the fences.
My parents, my younger sister, and I lived until I was nearly five in three rooms at the north side of Grampa Mac’s house. The room where we did everything but sleep had two windows facing out into a strip of perennial garden over-shadowed by one of the huge maples. I recall a summer morning, spoon clutched forgotten in one hand, while I watched a bird bounce about in the nearest branches, a flit of black and orange.
“A Baltimore Oriole,” said my mother, and added pragmatically, “If you’ll finish your cereal, you can go out in the yard and watch them.”
That particular slideshow of memory slips into darkness, leaving me with the brilliant colors of the bird outside the window—and the congealing bowl of soggy cereal which must be dealt with before I could gain the relative freedom of the chicken wire enclosed “play yard.”
A few years later when sister C. and I were in the early grades of school, Grampa Mac hung swings for us in the maples. Mine was in that large tree which brooded benevolently over the front of the house, C.’s dangled from a branch of the maple across the drive, well within shouting distance. Two lengths of stout rope were purchased from the farm supply store; Grampa Mac sawed lengths of salvaged plank, bored rope sized holes with his hand auger, sanded the rough edges which might snag a vulnerable bottom.
I was impressed to learn that the maples were there, seemingly as old and towering, when my mother and Uncle Bill were children. Our swings were the continuation of an older tradition.
I can’t know the year when the maples were set in place, twin guardians of the home, yet beside me on my desk lies the enlargement of an old photo showing the farmhouse, the familiar bell perched in its wooden cradle on the shed roof. The resident family stands posed about the dooryard, all faces turned toward the unseen photographer, and into the edges of the picture intrude the leafy branches of the maples. Tracing the names shakily written on an accompanying scrap of paper, I’ve placed the date circa 1887.
The growth of a sugar maple declines after 140 to 150 years, but an old-growth maple tree can live for several centuries in favorable conditions.
[Vintage photo supplied by Christy Alger]
The maples of my Grampa Mac’s dooryard stood silent witness to many generations before I arrived to dangle in my rope swing and stare up into their lofty crowns.
Even now, I can’t begin to calculate the hours spent in that swing, under the maple tree. It was a homing point in all seasons.
In winter I brushed snow from the wooden seat, gripped the cold-stiffened rope with mittened paws, drifted slowly, head back, to take in the tracery of dark branches and twigs against the blue sky of a February day. In March I hovered at Grampa Mac’s heels as he “tapped” the old tree, setting the metal spigots, hanging the sap buckets, pointing out the small scars of past seasons that marked the years of making maple syrup.
Springtime was a dreamy time in the swing, delighting in the warmth of afternoon sun filtering through new maple leaves of palest green, hearing the busy chirp of robins as they selected nest sites along the sturdier branches.
In summer the shade of the old tree was heavy, darkly and thickly green. Swinging created a small welcome breeze through my hair even on the scorching afternoons of July days. In all but the heaviest rain the dense canopy of leaves provided a shelter, only the occasional splatter dripping from the green layers to land on my shoulders or trickle down my neck. Birds chirped and muttered in the high branches while beyond their circle the grass shimmered with wet.
In autumn the dooryard maples warmed to a blaze of yellow and crimson leaves, an echo of the trees ranking the rise of woodland beyond the west pasture. An overcast day scarcely dimmed the golden light beneath the tree. Leaves drifted down day by day, to be raked into great heaps each crisp afternoon when school was done—inviting me to swing high and launch myself with a well-timed leap into the crunchy depths of the pile.
Robins and orioles departed, but the autumn cry of Canadian geese bugled overhead. Finally, when only a few crumpled yellow-brown leaves still clung to the branches, the blue sky of October rode above the black etching of limbs and twigs which drew the eye up and up into dizzying clear heights.
I missed the maples of New England during the twelve years of living in Wyoming. There, in autumn, the aspens shivered, gold-painted against dark spruce in the mountain passes, the delicate spade-shaped leaves flying before fierce winds and early snow. The leaves of the cottonwoods which crowded close to the looping irrigation ditches turned rusty, rattling in the gusts and plummeting down to decay on frosty grass already turning to the brown of winter.
A dear friend sent me a maple leaf from a tree growing in the dooryard of her house in Maine; a leaf carefully pressed with a hot iron between sheets of waxed paper, the quintessential autumn craft recalled from childhood. The edges eventually crumbled, still I treasured it.
I ordered a book of essays, tore open the padded envelope and felt a sharp stab of recognition and longing: the book cover was a collage of leaf photos by the author, the center image that of a red maple leaf, so finely captured that it seemed I could catch the autumn scent of a dew-dappled leaf, run a finger along the delicate veining.
Maples grow in Kentucky, the eastern central state we chose for a retirement home. Viewing this little cottage on a March morning, Jim instantly identified the maples standing about the dooryard. These are not the “sugar maples” [acer saccharum] of New England, but more likely a variety of “red maple”[ acer rubrum] the ones we called “soft" or "swamp maples” there for their habit of growing on low ground where they flamed into glory early in September, weeks ahead of their stately cousins towering in forest and sugar bush.
Haskell Rogers, the elderly gentleman who lived here before us, tells us that he brought maple saplings from the nearby woods shortly after the small house was raised in 1980. There are at least two, possibly three, variants of maples among those set closely around the dooryard. One resembles the silver maple which my father lovingly tended in Vermont---slimmer, pointier leaves, turning late in the fall to greeny-yellow. Three of the slender, silver-trunked maples have already given up their rusty red leaves. Only one tree still clings to its billow of brilliant burnished foliage.
I gather individual leaves, laying them out to compare. I snap photos, bring them up on the computer screen, puzzle over the descriptions and photos in on-line articles.
[I like knowing the precise names of trees—and flowers—and birds. With the maples, as with so many other searches, I fail to pin down the subtle shapes and markings that could differentiate one from another.]
I stand at the kitchen window and watch as leaves of gold and russet spin gently down. The maples lure me from the house on these late autumn days, drawing me under the arc of their spreading branches, as faraway maples did for so many decades. I go outside to stand still, listening, as leaves swish and scud along the ground before a wind that nips out of the north.
High above the silver maple the trumpeting of wild geese rings through wood smoke scented air, their dark wings and stretched necks appliquéd against a sky of autumn blue.
Another autumn; another turning of the season toward the chill winds and grey skies of winter; autumn also in my own span of years; autumn to live in a little house on a gentle hill, in a dooryard set round with maples.