I am a consulting arborist. I inspect trees for health and try to look into the crystal ball to judge if a tree is safe to live under. Bad things happen when trees fall over here in Atlanta.
Trees grow really fast here. They are huge! Most of these big trees grow very close to homes and streets. Atlanta is the place to be if you are a tree lover. It’s the most heavily forested city in America.
There was one tree in particular I loved looking at. I would see it a couple of times each day as I drove home. I would slow down and admire it. Sometimes I would pull over. It was a giant southern red oak growing between two houses. It had a perfectly rounded crown with a spread over 80 feet across. The trunk was five feet across which would put it at about 100 years old.
My wife would slow to look at this tree as well. She is my business partner as well as a tree admirer. One day she stopped and decided to take a walk up to have a look at the base of the tree. She knocked on the door to get permission. A mom and three little girls answered the door.
What my wife saw was a mushroom growing on one of the big root flares. She knew this particular mushroom was a bad sign. It indicated root rot. Oak trees fall over when the decay caused by this fungus attacks the anchoring roots. The mom gave my wife the phone number of the owner. A day later I went out to make the tree inspection.
I dreaded the thought at looking at this tree. This was a tree I admired. Part of me didn’t want to know the truth. The other part of me knew the tree would destroy two homes and probably kill people.
There is a scientific method to testing trees. You work off a data sheet that has you look at all of the parts of a tree. You also look at the targets, what a tree could hit if it fell. If you wanted to look inside the tree, you could drill it with a tiny drill bit that records the resistance of the wood against drill bit. The readout is on a strip of paper, much like an EKG.
I drilled four times. I was praying for the recording needle to register high on the strip of paper. I always talk to the tree when I drill. “Come on, you can make it! All right, all right! Looking good!” My spectators that day were three kids, a mom, my wife, three of my tree climbing students, and the owner of the property. They watched as I drilled different sides of the trunk. Two drillings showed signs of decay, two showed healthy wood.
“What do you think, what do you think?” Everyone wants a quick answer. Do we take it down or leave it. I was clearly in the judge’s chair. I was screwed if I made the wrong decision and left it standing. Yet it was one of the most majestic trees in Atlanta. I decided not to make a quick judgment.
I came back the next day with a fellow collogue and we drilled 5 more times. This time I drilled more times downward below the soil surface. This is where the decay lives. It’s called white rot. It turns hardwood into soft white spongy wood. These are the big anchoring roots that hold a tree up. I looked above me as I drilled. The tree was easily 50 tons in weight. The results were not good.
I had a numbing feeling of compassion as I looked at the tree one last time. I know trees aren’t supposed to have feelings. But I’ve heard them wailing for their lives when the big winds come through. I’ve seen them bow down and creak with the heavy weight of ice. Then there’s the aching moan when a two-trunk tree splits apart. Most people hear a frightening sound when trees break. I hear a goodbye.
There’s a ghost living in the spot where the tree used to live. I can see the silhouette of the tree where it used to be. I can see its cooling arms stretching out over the two houses. I see that tree in my minds eye. I don’t drive down that street any more.
Do you have personal feelings about a tree?