Mark Kennedy: Our dangerous tree was hanging on for dear life

·4 min read

Jul. 3—When we moved into our current house 18 years ago, I noticed an oak tree in the backyard that was starting to rot at the base.

"That'll need to come down," I remember saying to myself back in 2003.

Straight as a plumb line and 60 feet tall, it was an average tree on an average acre in the middle of a Walden's Ridge forest until our subdivision was built in the late 1980s. Deep in the woods, it had never developed the lush foliage that might have made it a healthier specimen.

Shortly after we moved into our house, I called an arborist to estimate what it would cost to remove the tree.

"Oh, a thousand or two," he said.

It turns out 15 years later that a thousand or two — $1,500 to be exact — was indeed the number.

The arborist also said he didn't think the tree was at any imminent risk of falling and crashing into our house — although "you never know," he hedged.

He quickly estimated the height of the tree and then stepped off the yardage between the base and the edge of our house. Geometry was on our side, he said. The tiny limbs at the top of the 60-foot tree might brush the roof if the tree fell, but that was it.

In my mind I downgraded the risk to "minimal" and moved it down the list of our family's capital spending priorities, placing it somewhere between braces for the boys and a used Mazda Miata for me.

Still, the tree was always something of a menace. When our two sons were small and we would play ball in the backyard, we always went inside when the wind picked up. At night, our younger son would sometimes come downstairs to sleep on the living room couch if he knew a storm front was set to blow through.

At times, the tree felt like the sword of Damocles.

Damocles was a character in Greek mythology who had to sit under a sword held up by a single hair. Our tree wasn't that perilous, but in my father's mind, any danger to the brood was something worth worrying about.

In the last couple of years, it had become apparent that the Damocles tree was dead, roots to branches. Years ago, some of the upper limbs sprouted leaves in the summer, but not any longer.

During the COVID-19 quarantine months, I would stare out our back window and the dead oak would stare back. Of the 20 or so mature trees in our yard, it got 99% of my mental attention.

Finally, this spring, my wife and I decided to catch up on some deferred home maintenance, and cutting the Damocles tree was on our to-do list.

A neighbor shared a business card for a reasonably priced tree service.

On the day of the tree-cutting, three big trucks and five men arrived at our house. There was a bucket truck, a chipper truck and a truck to carry off big chunks of the tree, I assumed to recycle as firewood.

While the owner in the bucket truck surgically cut off 4-foot sections of the tree from the top down, small men with strong backs carried off the pieces and tossed them into a truck.

I noticed our 14-year-old sitting on the back deck, watching intently. I watched, too, out the dining room window.

In my mind, I made a list of my memories of the Damocles tree. The redheaded woodpecker that seemed to like this particular tree for drumming. The bracket for a hanging basket that some previous homeowner had nailed through the bark. The foul balls that ricocheted off the tree into my baseball glove when our older son was 10.

And all those years of low-grade worry would shortly be history.

In a hour, it was done. The tree was gone. Nothing was left but the stump and a scattering of sawdust. Meanwhile, a new shaft of sunlight found its way through our backyard canopy.

I gave the tree service owner a check and included enough for him to buy his crew dinner. Our tree of Damocles deserved a proper wake.

After the tree men left, I examined the stump, which looked like a series of interlocking commas. It was clear only a small fraction of the trunk had been holding up this giant oak. It could have literally fallen at any minute.

These final few years couldn't have been easy on the tree, I thought. But it stayed strong. It didn't fall on us. It went out standing tall.

I stood over the stump and said a little prayer.

"Goodbye, friend. We will all sleep easier tonight."

Email Mark Kennedy at

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