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Last Word: Our Iowa Roots

“The best time to plant
a tree was 20 years ago.
The second best time is now.”

— Chinese proverb

 

By Carol Bodensteiner

“It has fewer leaves this year than last,” I say, looking critically at the shade tree that with each passing year provides less cover for our three-season porch. “Can’t we do something?”
 
“The tree service didn’t think so.” My husband is finally resigned. “We need to replace it.”
 
We had held out hope that this sugar maple would recover. It’s a graceful, mature tree that spreads shade across our deck during family reunions held in July heat, welcomes flocks of gold finches to feeders hanging from its branches, and sends cool breezes wafting through our porch screens. In the fall its red-gold leaves are among the most brilliant in our yard.
 
The farewell will be difficult. Do we take the maple out now, even though it’s still living? Removing a tree is neither easy nor inexpensive. And which type of new tree to welcome? And where to plant?
 
Replacing one is a decision made for the long term — longer than we’ll live. We’ve discussed a strategy for the last five years. We do not make this decision lightly.
 
When we moved to this acreage six years ago, my husband and I fell in love with the parklike atmosphere of three acres graced with more than 60 mature trees.
 
Maple and ash are the predominant species, but interspersed are ornamentals such as spring-flowering redbud, magnolias, and crabapples; assorted evergreens; three species of oak; and various fruit and nut trees. Trees shade the house in summer and block the winds in winter.
 
I love trees. I’ve been known to go out and give a tree a good hug to feel the rough bark against my cheek, to sense the sap running against my chest — a tree hugger in the physical, if not political, sense. Iowans share my fondness.
 
Iowa’s historical love affair with trees is embedded in the names of towns as diverse as Red Oak and Walnut, Laurel and Linden, Eagle Grove and Forest City. Iowa once enjoyed far more tree cover than we do today. According to Shannon Ramsay, for every five trees removed in our state, only one is replaced. The founder of the Marion-based nonprofit Trees Forever has been fighting the downward trend for 23 years.
 
In 2011 she received the Frederick Law Olmsted Award from the Arbor Day Foundation, recognizing her lifelong commitment to conservation. “People take trees for granted. We are their voice.”
 
Ramsay, a native of Mississippi who made Iowa her home 35 years ago, leads some 7,000 volunteers who have planted more than 3 million trees in Iowa and Illinois communities since the organization was founded in 1989.
 
Three million. I consider this volume as I study the 13 ash trees that shade our house and driveway, ensuring a cool walk to the mailbox even on the hottest summer days. Ash trees were a popular choice to replace the elms struck down decades ago by Dutch elm disease: fast growing, tall, beautiful fall color.
 
Unfortunately everyone thought so. A tree inventory in Cedar Rapids revealed that 28 percent of the trees on public property are ash. Imagine if they were all gone. I don’t like to entertain the thought, but the emerald ash borer crossed Iowa’s eastern border in 2010, and we have reason to be concerned.
 
For now, our ash trees are fine. But about this maple? Our discussion continues to stall around what to plant.
 
“Something native to Iowa,” I urge.
 
“How about a ginkgo?” my husband offers.
 
Not exactly native, I think to myself — incorrectly, it turns out.
 
“Ginkgos were native to Iowa 7,000 years ago,” says Ramsay with a laugh. The fossil record shows it. Diversity of species is a wiser consideration, she suggests.
 
My husband and I agree on this much — to plant a replacement tree this spring. We know it could take 20 years to provide real shade for our porch. We’d be a quarter of the way there if we’d acted five years ago. But we’re planting now — for us, for our grandchildren, for future owners of this land.
 

© Can Stock Photo Inc./MATKA_WARIATKA

 

 

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