Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees," which was reprinted in a Jan. 2 Style section article, is copyrighted by Jerry Vogel Music Co. Inc.
When Joyce Kilmer wrote his poem "Trees," he did not have in mind the giant old maple that dominates our front lawn.
I have nothing against trees. Forests should remain wild and untouched. A tree offering shade in a wide-open park is a thing of beauty. But our maple has outgrown the place where it was planted many years ago.
Each time I pass beneath its shaggy boughs, lines from Kilmer's poem come to mind -- "I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree" -- and I wonder what I did to deserve that somber-looking monster.
Over the years, it has caused damage to the house and brought on extra maintenance for a lawn where grass will not grow.
Kilmer's second stanza spoke of "A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed against the earth's sweet flowing breast," which reminds me of a conversation with an expensive lawn-care guy.
He promised grass even while pointing out big clumps of ground where the roots were pushing through the surface, and apparently while not considering Kilmer's words "hungry mouth."
"The roots of that tree are hungry," he said. "They are using up all this good soil for food. As for the shade, maybe you can grow mushrooms."
A new idea came to mind for ground cover. I realized how the ivy grew every place but where I wanted it, so I transplanted several good sturdy vines -- only to have them turn brown for lack of whatever the tree took from them.
A few plants that were advertised to grow anywhere were tried, but the shaggy old maple held its ground, allowing only a wide variety of ugly-looking weeds to survive.
My mind went back to Kilmer's poem again one rainy day when a roofer pointed to the worn slates on the roof and a damaged gutter: "A tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray."
The roofer was estimating the cost of repairs on a grimy pad, using the stub of a pencil, wetting the dull point against his tongue every few minutes.
"You see those branches, well they just wore away that slate, brushing against it in windstorms, and the gutter has been torn loose.
"Slate is hard to come by and expensive today. It might be just as easy to put on a new roof and replace the gutter than try to patch up that mess," he said, again licking the pencil tip against a now-blackened tongue.
So one Saturday, with a tall ladder and a sharp saw, I removed a few of those "leafy arms."
The roofer came and finished his job, charging some outrageous amount, and the wind murmuring through the old maple somehow sounded like a snickering.
Of course, the leaves falling from those "leafy arms" also cost time, energy and money.
"Borrow someone's mulcher and grind them up -- makes good mulch to pat around the bushes" is an annual suggestion I get from a neighbor, tweed-jacketed, elbow-patched, pipe-smoking, weekend man-of-the-soil.
I pondered the reasoning of raking the dead leaves out from under the bushes, grinding them up into mulch and then shoveling them under the bushes again.
Somehow the leaves would get pushed out into the street gutter, but always a few days after the leaf eater passed by.
A retired neighbor, whose hobby is knowing about every fire within a five-mile radius, watched the leaves being piled up in the gutter one day and told about a man nearby who did the same thing with his leaves.
"He had a big pile of them when the man next door drove up in a brand new Cadillac," he said. "When he got out and went into the house, a spark from the car ignited the leaves, causing a big fire, ruining the car.
"The leaf raker was fined some enormous amount and charged with arson.
"It's against the law, you know," putting leaves in the gutter, he added, continuing his monologue.
So the "leafy arms" could also land me a stretch in Lorton, I thought, continuing my task.
Then there are those cool, early summer mornings, when the windows are wide open, and sleep is suddenly interrupted by birds screaming at each other from every branch in the tree. In the struggle to regain unconsciousness, another stanza from "Trees" would haunt me: "A tree that may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair."
Pulling a pillow over my head, I knew that no self-respecting robin would raise a family in that leafy slum, that the din came from the dregs of bird society: catbirds screaming at sneaking squirrels or diving on cowardly cats; loud cawing crows nesting up high, loudly bragging over the entrails of some tiny animal freshly squashed by a speeding car, or a senseless woodpecker clacking away at the maple's tough bark.
The poem continues to haunt me through all seasons: "Upon whose branches snow has lain; who intimately lives with rain."
The "dry basement engineer" stood on a soggy newspaper in front of the washing machine one morning and said, "The leaky wall could be caused by the roots of that tree out there; sometimes those roots underground are about as big as some of those branches up there, and they push through the masonry, causing cracks." The consultation cost a small amount, but then for some reason the leak stopped.
"Poems are made by fools like me," Kilmer wrote, "but only God can make a tree." So who would cut one down, especially one so huge it would cost $1,000?