For the Birds Radio Program: My Backyard Spruce Trees

Original Air Date: Sept. 14, 1994 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Sept. 27, 2012; Sept. 13, 2010; Sept. 14, 2009; Sept. 2, 2008; June 27, 2003; Aug. 29, 2002; June 21, 2002; Aug. 14, 2000

The trees in our backyards often seem like little more than background scenery for the real action, but once in a while the trees take center stage.

(Not sure when this first aired, but it fit in here, between mostly known dates for the month.)

(The sound file is from a later re-use, modified slightly from the original reflecting the passage of time.)

Duration: 4′39″


We’ve lived with a family of four spruces–a huge matriarch and three skinny children huddled around her–since we moved to our house in 1981. The mother was planted by two boys around 1920. 1 know this because I once got a phone call from a man who’d read a newspaper story about me–he lived in my house as a child and he and his brother planted her themselves. He remembers her as his tree, not mine, which says something about our ideas of tree ownership.

This big spruce invited me to come live in her old house on Peabody Street when I was expecting my first baby. Pairs of aspens, silver maples and apple trees, and single balsam, ash, crabapple, birch, and red maple, lived here too. The young spruces had a gangly adolescent box elder nearby for a playmate. This diverse and neighborly forest growing in the backyard told me that I had found my home.

My spruces’ congeniality and closeness have been appreciated by an endless stream of squirrels who leap effortlessly from one to another in high speed chases. Before we adopted my cat Sasha, she used to hide behind one spruce as redpolls gathered and then–pounce! She lived strictly indoors with us, but when she died, we buried her near the spruces. Now when I scatter millet under them, feeding juncoes and sparrows, I sometimes feel Sasha’s presence. I may even have heard the trees reminiscing about her as they whisper among themselves.

Over the years, the balsam, apple trees, and one aspen died, and the red maple and birch aren’t doing too well. Trees don’t die all at once the way animals do–you couldn’t name a precise moment of death for a tree. Even after an ax or windstorm, a tree’s soul remains, only slowly easing itself from the corpse. Thrushes and wrens spend their lives in the company of fallen trees, hopping on logs, feasting on bugs in the rotting wood, their soft brown feathers blending with decayed leaves. It is the souls of dead trees that give these birds their ethereal, soulful songs.

When Joey left for school last Wednesday morning during a fierce windstorm, he suddenly ran back, yelling that one of the spruces was falling down. We ran to the door to witness a looming catastrophe–the tree dangled perilously close to our power line. High winds had uprooted him, but he hadn’t crashed down on the line thanks to his sister tree, who struggled against the wind to hold him up. He tilted at a 75º angle, his weight ripping and breaking her branches. Little by little he sank closer to the electrical wire. In a sudden gust he fell to 45 degrees, but her limbs caught him inches from the wire. She slowly eased him onto the cable, gently enough that it didn’t break. The guys from the power company said it was a miracle the line didn’t snap, cutting off our power or worse. But we knew it was no miracle—it was the hard work of one dear spruce tree.

I could hardly let someone come shred my dear tree into wood fiber, pulverizing his soul before he’s ready to release it, dooming him to an afterlife as a newspaper advertisement supplement. We left four feet of his stump on the roots to hold a bird feeder, and the rest of him lies along the back fence. Squirrels, juncos and sparrows are already taking shelter from the wind among his branches, and crossbills are feeding on his cones. A Downy Woodpecker probes into his bark and, come spring, House Wrens will hatch out in fresh new cavities. Little by little, he’ll give up his individuality and his soul to the creatures who feed on him and in him. In this way, my backyard neighborhood, long graced by his living presence, will be sanctified by his death.