Farewell to a Treasured Friend

That’s the east-facing side of my house looking up from the creek that borders our land. Towering over the house is a 90-foot high northern red oak that I’ve written about before. Two years ago on a sunny day with no wind, the tree shed a large branch laden with acorns, barely missing the house. I wrote about that event here. This year, another seemingly healthy branch fell about three months ago. This one just nicked the edge of the roof, requiring Wonder Spouse to replace a few damaged shingles.

After that second branch fell, a little voice in the back of my head began to nag me without surcease: “This tree’s time has come. Do something to it before it does something to you.” No, I didn’t literally hear a voice in my head, but a persistent feeling of impending doom involving this tree would not leave me.

I called my trusted arborist, who has been working with me and my trees since we moved here 23 years ago. I was hoping he might be able to prune it in a way that would remove the massive limbs overhanging the master bedroom and the living room. Derek estimated that each of those branches weighed about ten thousand pounds. If they hit the roof, they would keep right on going to the basement.

But this tree had forked about thirty feet up — unusual for a northern red oak, Derek told me. We looked at the tree for an hour, but neither of us could devise a pruning strategy that would be healthy for the tree and the occupants of the house.

With a heavy sigh, Derek agreed the tree should be removed. He didn’t want to do this any more than I wanted it done. I didn’t want to lose a treasured tree that shaded my house in summer and brought much wildlife to my doorstep. Derek didn’t want to take down such a massive tree so close to my house.

Last week, Derek and his five-man crew — with the help of a crane operator brought in for the occasion — spent six hours safely removing this massive oak. Wonder Spouse took the day off to document the occasion in photos — and to administer smelling salts to me if the the roof got bashed in. Here are a few of the many photos taken by Wonder Spouse. Remember you can click on any photo in this blog to see an enlarged version.

Looking up from the ground, the two forks are clearly evident.

The crane arrives, bracing and balancing itself for the job.

When the crane operator arrived, he tried to back out of helping, fearing the worst for our roof. Derek persuaded him that all would go well, which I’m happy to report, it did.

That’s Derek in the bucket of his cherry-picker truck. It is fully extended, which is sixty feet.

Derek began by cutting some of the ends of branches. He remained in that bucket for six hours, until every single branch had been safely cut and lifted over the house by the crane. Derek rocks!

Sawing away, sixty feet up.

After some preliminary cutting by Derek, it was time for the crane. One of the men from Derek’s crew attached himself to the end of the crane’s cable, so that it could lift him into the tree, where he attached the crane cable to a branch before Derek sawed it loose from the tree.

Going up!

See the tiny man near the top of the tree? See Derek in the bucket of the cherry picker far, far, below? Yikes!

The crane cable is attached, so Derek makes the cut.

The crane lifted out the first branch:

The crane operator had them limit the weight of each lift to about 5,000 pounds, but that branch is still the size of a good-sized tree.

Safely lifted over the house to the front yard, the branch was detached from the crane’s cable:

The rest of the crew sawed up and chipped the branches.

This process continued for six hours, until every branch was safely removed.

Slowly and carefully, each branch was hoisted over our roof and onto the ground.

When all the branches were gone, a length of split trunk about fifty feet high remained. That’s easy work for Derek’s experienced crew. He got out of the cherry picker and drove it to safety while the crane operator drove off, likely with new confidence about what his machine can do with the right crew assisting.

The crew attached a rope to the top of the trunk, and attached the other end to the bobcat tractor they mostly use to haul off wood chunks. The bobcat’s job was to apply enough tension to the rope to persuade the trunk to fall where they wanted. With the rope in place, it was time for the first cut:

These guys make this look easy, but don’t try this at home, folks.

The bobcat positioned to tug the guide rope.

The twin-forked trunk falls just where they planned it would.


I had been feeling pretty sad about losing this tree, although Derek had told me by this point that several of the branches growing over the house had been largely rotten in the middle. But all doubts about my decision dissolved when the trunk hit the ground and split completely in two.

Oh yes, my friends, that is heart rot running through the center of this formerly massive oak.

Here’s another angle to give you a better sense of scale:

We were all pretty much speechless as we surveyed the split trunk.

A crew member discovered large, healthy earthworms living deep inside the big rotten areas. Earthworms!

Above the split, the twin trunks also showed evidence of rotten hearts, though not yet as massively as further down.

The top of one of the twin trunks. Note the dark rotten parts inside.

Here’s the top of the stump:

Rotten to the core, alas.

Another surprise arose when Derek counted the rings. He had been guessing that a northern red oak this size was likely between 100-150 years old. Tree rings, however, don’t lie. This tree was only about 50 years old.

See the darker areas on the right side of the photo? Derek told me they denote a time when the tree sustained significant injuries, which seem to have occurred about 1967, the year the house was built. He guessed that a bulldozer likely harmed the tree during construction, and that’s when the rot began. The rings also told him that the trunk more than doubled in circumference during the 23 years that Wonder Spouse and I have lived here. Photos from 23 years ago indicate that the tree almost doubled in height during that time too.

After Derek analyzed the rings and surveyed the extent of the heart rot, he turned to me and said, “You were right.” I think Derek thought I was being overly cautious when I insisted on removing this tree, but when he saw the damage, he said we’d been living on borrowed time. He postulated that the stabilizing cables he had put in two years ago when the first big branch fell may well have prevented the trunks from splitting during bad weather since then.

After the crew cleaned up and left, Wonder Spouse and I marveled over our good fortune. We were deeply fortunate to have found an arborist with the expertise required to safely remove our forest giant — and to sweet-talk a crane operator into helping him. We were even more fortunate that the tree remained mostly intact until it could be safely removed.

And I personally am profoundly grateful for that little nagging voice that warned me to eschew sentimentality and protect my home.

Thanks to Derek and his crew, the skilled crane operator, and Wonder Spouse for his photographic documentation of the process.

And thanks to my little voice. May you always guide my choices so well.

A Red-Spotted Purple butterfly laps up oozing sap from the freshly cut stump.

NOTE: Much to the dismay of me and his other many loyal customers, Derek sold his business and is enjoying a well-deserved retirement full of travel to beautiful and exotic places. I’m so grateful that he and his crew removed this tree before he closed his operation. Thanks again, Derek!

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  1. #1 by MIke Sepelak on October 1, 2012 - 10:31 am

    While it’s heartbreaking to see such a magnificent tree go, safety first. A wonderful recount, Cathy. Now you can put up the solar panels.

    • #2 by piedmontgardener on October 1, 2012 - 10:33 am

      You’re so right, Mike. Safety first. And I hadn’t thought about solar panels, but that’s a notion worth further consideration. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. #3 by Michael Livingston on October 2, 2012 - 9:06 pm

    That’s sad and wonderful . . . and beautifully written!

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