Goodbye, and thanks for your service

In (somewhat) better days

Trees are suffering. First, there are the pests; among the most current are the emerald ash borer, the mountain pine beetle, and the wooly aldegid. Then there are the ravages of fires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters; it was awful to see the defoliation in the Caribbean earlier this year (though growing conditions there should promote faster replacement than we’d see in Buffalo). And then there are the always-ongoing threats of bad planting and bad maintenance.

One of only two trees on our actual property—we are surrounded by trees we don’t own—was just cut down last week, the last in a series of must-do pre-winter tasks. A big sugar maple, it had been weakening over the past five years, and now posed a serious threat to neighboring structures. We think it’s many decades old, but aren’t sure of the exact age. During garden tours, visitors have always been surprised to be seeing such a large tree in an urban courtyard garden; it grew directly against an even older Victorian carriage house.

Tree replacement has been a big thing in Buffalo since a 2006 freak October snowstorm that many called Arborgeddon, and now my friends are losing their ash trees. But I don’t think I’ll replace this one—it was not a very generous spot for a mature tree ever, and I have enough structure from the largish stump that remains, not to mention the wall behind it. I’m sure I can figure something out and make this work. In any case, after having seen what it took to get the thing down, I’d never want to have to risk making anyone go through that again. Fences were sawn apart and heavy machinery made a mud pit out of a nicely planted shade bed. The possibility of people losing power and cable service was raised.

A really old sycamore nearby (winter shot)

As much as I love an urban canopy, trees in densely built areas like mine are never problem-free. Still, they persist. A 320-year-old American sycamore is surviving just a few blocks away. It’s currently battling a bout of anthracnose, but it survived the burning of Buffalo in 1812, so I have high hopes.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Nice post. Have you read The Hidden Life of Trees? Just finished and I am looking at them with new eyes.

    • Trees can never be a problem if treated right. Seeing a tree come down is sad and discouraging. Trees that have survived through natural disasters and people’s mistakes have real stories to tell and need to be protected.

  2. Thanks for a toughtful post that resonates with me – we have an ash in our front yard and a very large sycamore reaching across our backyard.

    Makes me think, of all things, of African political boundaries. When I served in the Peace Corps in West Africa, I found Peoples (speaking the same language, sharing defining stories of history and belief) separated willy-nilly by political boundaries imposed from Vienna by pundits who’d never set foot in Africa.

    Similarly, our lot lines, roads, and zoning cut a crazy pattern across a much older ecological map, set by soils, streams, and plant communities. That venerable sugar maple “knew” just what it was doing, but our plans got in the way. Hate to see it go, but – just as in Africa now – we must deal with a new reality, even though it causes all kinds of problems. To throw in another geographic metaphor, gardeners must cope with ‘ecological balkanization’, I suppose.

    Anyway, that’s one reason why Susan’s recent ‘best natives’ post was helpful. In addition, I hope we can all learn to think and garden as ecologically as we can, and to set aside ‘commons’, an old term, where big trees and native plant communities can live with integrity (as well as some ‘ag commons’ – community gardens – where all can enjoy a place to garden and grow food even if they lack land access.) But, damn, gardeners will still need to manage things, as Michael Pollen suggested long ago, and we’ll need to steer clear of creating another franchise of The Joni Mitchell Memorial BYT Tree Museum (admission now $15, memberships $100).

    Thanks for an inspiring essay, and happy Thanksgiving. Good luck with that mega-stump!

  3. I had a large large hickory cut that I thought was threatening the barn. Turns out, the tree was perfectly sound and would have probably outlasted me. I will never forget the despair I felt when it was laid down, nor the sap tears its stump wept. I had rather dealt with a smashed barn than be missing that tree. Now there is another ancient oak leaning, this one hollow. But I have learned: when it’s time comes, it will fall, but not by my hand. It will smash a chain link fence (good riddance), the well house, and will damage two other trees as well as possibly part of the barn. But so be it. I cannot take it’s life, even if it is old.

  4. It’s always sad to see a tree come down, especially those that have stood proudly through decades of sunny and stormy weather. I always wished I could know all that happened around that tree throughout its life.

  5. Pests can be a significant problem when left untreated, but I think people and natural conditions can be far more damaging. A snowstorm in the beginning of November before the leaves have fallen off can be detrimental. Surely trees need to be protected by us, from us, as well. It’s a tree’s life.

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