Yesterday I clung to the trunk of a tree 25 feet up with a handsaw. It was awkward and difficult, but I was excited that Katherine had finally given in to my scheme. As I swayed up near the top of the tree though, I reflected on the sad irony of the situation.

Many years ago, someone who considers herself a witch asked me what kind of tree I associated with most. Whether or not the answer had any actual value, the question was asked and considered in all earnestness. The answer was clear. Hemlocks. I feel at home in a hemlock forest.

Recently Katherine, Theo, and I meandered down a paved path which wends its way for half a mile or so between the main drag in Topsham and some sort of generic medical office building. The path ran along a slowly deteriorating parking lot, then wound down between some grassy mounds spotted with deciduous trees. It was a bit more private, but still obviously suburbia. Around the next corner though, things changed. A stream cut a steep gully, and the banks were overhung with hemlocks. A chain-link fence kept pedestrians and their detritus out of the stream, but had I skirted the fence, I might have been wandering in the forest behind my house, or behind my friend's house. We might have been surrounded by suburbia, but this was the woods.

A hemlock forest casts a deep cool shade in the summer. That shade keeps the undergrowth down, leaving the forest floor free for wanderers. Hemlock needles don't poke and scrape at you like spruce needles do. And hemlocks don't usually smear you with pitch the way pines do. If you can reach the lower branches, an older hemlock is a great tree to climb. There are enough branches that you never find yourself out on a limb looking for a handhold or a foothold the way you might in an oak. A hemlock forest is a wonderful place to wander.
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Unfortunately, in Maine, our hemlocks are threatened. As the climate warms, an invasive pest, the hemlock woody adelgid, is expanding its range into Maine. The adelgid is an aphid-like pest which feeds on sap at the tips of branches and lays eggs in sacks which look like small tufts of cotton. Affected trees in our area usually die between 4 and 10 years of infection (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemlock_woolly_adelgid).

This spring, we found the telltale wooly eggs all over the tips of the hemlocks on the edge of the Thompson house lawn. It would be sad to kill them, but these hemlocks were doomed, and we wanted to clear the infestation before it could spread more widely.


I don't remember exactly how or when the idea came to me, but it came all at once. We could turn the trunks of the hemlocks into poles for a trellis for vines. I know from all my many years climbing hemlocks that it would be no problem to get up close enough to the top to take the top off with a hand saw. From there I could remove branches as I climbed down, and finally we could girdle the tree at the bottom to kill it. A standing dead trunk would be of no interest to the pests, and we might buy some more time for our local forests.

The hemlocks could be replaced with a mix of flowers, vines, bushes and trees. The flowers could give us something to look at in the first year, the vines might fill in a trellis over the next few years, and finally, over several decades, new trees might mature to replace the doomed hemlocks.

Although the plan sprung into my head more or less fully formed early in the season, Katherine remained dubious for many months. The fact is, most people don't top, limb, and girdle their trees and leave them in place. It just isn't really a thing. Yet.
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Two days ago, Katherine wavered briefly in her opposition. She said I could do one tree, in the back. I immediately went to get the saw. The next day, there I was with a saw 25 feet up. When she came by to see the progress and said she was pleasantly surprised, I took that as permission to start on a second tree. When we got home I put in an order with a nursery. The crazy plan I nurtured all season is on.

It's a bit sad to use your love and familiarity with a tree to kill it, but sadly, the fate of those hemlocks was probably sealed a couple of years ago. By turning our trees into tall trellis poles we can buy a little more time for the surrounding woods and grow something unique (and hopefully beautiful!) in the process.