Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The rural life: Friend or foe?

What do you do when a friend of 30 years turns into a menace? An unpredictable hulk, threatening you and your family? I’m facing that situation right now. In fact, as I type these words, this menace is out in my front yard, not two dozen feet from my door.


It’s a pine tree. It’s twice as tall as our two-story home, and in the storm of two weekends ago, it thrashed about like the monster in a kid’s bad dream, threatening every moment (or so it seemed) to topple over onto the house.

This is not just any tree, however. It truly has been a friend. It watched from the sidelines as my husband jackhammered a rocky ledge to create the foundation for our home, in 1979. It was a bushy youngster back then; my hands could almost encircle its trunk. Still, it provided a nice patch of shade, and when the summertime temperature soared past 100, it was a good place to stop hammering and have a cool one.

Our two nephews, then 12 and 13, were go-fers on the construction site. A favorite family story tells about one summer day when their mother came to pick them up and found the youngest one curled up asleep at the foot of that tree, his face a mask of sweat and dirt.

Fast-forward a few years and the tree became my hitching post. I used to ride my mare up to the house and leave her at the tree as I ran inside to fetch a cold drink when the sun was blazing, or an extra jacket when fall breezes sharpened. Since then, a little rock wall along our driveway makes the tree unavailable for this purpose. But around the widest part of the tree’s now-massive trunk, just above the ground, is a reminder of that long-ago role — a remnant of clothesline placed around the tree back then as a place to attach a lead rope.

The tree, to my eye, is lovely in every respect. It’s a grey pine, Pinus sabiniana, named after the English botanist Joseph Sabine. You may know the species as a bull or digger pine, though the latter name, derived from the California Indians who once gathered the edible nuts from the tree’s cone, is now considered derogatory.

Grey pines are known for their unusual shapes as they age. Their trunks divide at the top and reform according to prevailing winds. The grey pine near our house is partially protected from the wind by the house itself, but its upper branches are interestingly and elegantly curved.

Some homeowners consider the grey pine a “junk tree” because of its high sap content (extra flammable), its car-denting-size pine cones, and its post-maturity penchant for falling over or dropping branches in a windstorm.

We have dozens of grey pines on our 20 acres and I love them all, but I’m especially fond of the friend that’s stood by our house all these years, adding beauty and providing shade.

Still…is it now a threat to the structure it towers over?

I had a tree expert out the other day to talk things over. I explained my concerns, and he nodded knowingly.

“Yes, it’ll take some doing,” he said, “but we can get it down in sections, starting at the top, and working carefully–”

“Whoa, whoa!” I responded, cutting him off. “I love the tree. I don’t want to take it down. At least, not yet. Unless,” and here my voice lost its stridency, “you think we should?”

“Well,” he replied, eying the tree from root to crown, “I don’t think you have to. The trunk is mostly straight and strong, and the tree itself seems to be in good health. If we trim out all the deadwood, that will decrease the wind resistance and help to protect it some.”

This was just what I wanted to hear. “And,” I offered, “the good thing is that the storm winds come from the southeast, which means the tree is blowing away from the house during the worst of it.”

“Ah,” he countered, “but there’s whiplash, where the wind blows the tree one way, then when the trunk snaps back it can snap off — right onto the house.”

“Ohhhhh.” This was something I’d never thought of. Still, the tree guy assured me that the thinning-out would provide some protection from whiplash, as well. So that’s what we’re planning to have done, sometime before Christmas — and before the next big storm, I hope.

As he wrote up the estimate and prepared to leave, the tree guy volunteered one more thing.

“I have a grey pine, too, right next to my house. A huge one — bigger than yours.”

“You do?!” I was stunned. This was great news. If the expert himself felt comfortable living next to a grey pine, then perhaps I could feel a tad less foolhardy myself.

Perhaps I even could, for a few more years at least, continue to consider our lovely tree as a friend, and not a menace.

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat. Share your thoughts with her at

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is an award-winning journalist and author with three published books to her credit. Currently she is a senior editor with Horse & Rider magazine. Jennifer lives in rural Latrobe with her husband, Hank; their daughter, Sophie Elene; and the family’s assorted animals.

Discussion | 1 comment

  • cookie65December 10, 2012 - 6:30 am

    Digger pines can escape winds and rain and snow for years. Then on a calm day without warning the snap about 30 feet up destroying anything they land on.

    Reply | Report abusive comment


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