I've Found My Place in the Sun
Austin C. Kennell, Afton, Virginia
This is definitely not a shady tale. As a matter of fact, it's about trees that do not provide shade - deep, light, high, dappled, or any other kind of shade!
If this sounds odd, let me explain. In the summer of 1977, I purchased my present home located on two acres nestled at the foot of the eastern slope of a mountain in the area made famous by the television program, "The Waltons". I was less influenced in my selection of this property by anything depicted on television than I was by a factor far more important to a rhododendron fancier. The property was dotted by some 75 to 80 old, what I call, Virginia pines 40' to 50' tall and without any branches lower than 20'. In addition, there were several gorgeous, beautifully shaped white pines, some oaks, dogwoods and miscellaneous other trees. To top all this off, the properties on either side of mine were similarly forested.
So, as far as shade conditions for rhododendrons were concerned, I had an ideal set-up, right? Wrong. The fates that control the destinies of overly-optimistic rhododendron buffs had other plans in mind for me!
During the fall of 1977, I moved in between 500 and 600 plants, mostly rhododendrons and azaleas of all sizes, shapes and traits, and settled back to enjoy my hobby (visions of sitting on my veranda sipping mint juleps ran through mind occasionally...Unfortunately, I didn't have a veranda to sit on and I didn't know how to make mint juleps.)
It didn't take long to shatter my hopes for a long, tranquil, and pleasant existence. During the winter of 1977-78, snow, ice and wind brought down three of the 50' pines - one on my electric lines, one on my barn, one on my driveway, and all on top of plants. To prevent additional damage, I had four more of the pines cut down, section by section, to avoid damaging plants around them. I figured the occurrence was one of those freaks of nature that would probably not happen again for many years. After all, my trees had been standing there for maybe 60 or 70 years. One result, though, was that I tore up some orders for plants I was going to get because the cost of removing the trees had wiped out my "plant-buying fund".
During the summer of 1978, two more 40' to 50' trees blew down, along with many branches of other trees, and I cut down one more tree. Surely, another freakish thing - but quite a few rhododendrons and azaleas were completely wiped out or badly broken.
During 1979 and 1980, the score really mounted - seven more trees blew down and nine were cut down. Many broken branches added to the problem. Damages included lots of plants, a chimney knocked off, guttering down, garden equipment smashed, and bankroll decimated. In early 1979, beavers who inhabited a lake behind my property began to get into the act and gnawed down some 12 or so trees.
Surely the laws of probability would start working in my favor. And so they did! I didn't lose a single tree in 1981. But, both my neighbors had all their trees cut down and hauled away for timber. So much for the good neighbor policy!
The weekend of April 3 and 4, 1982, shot the law of probability thing all to h---. The wind started blowing at noon on Saturday and continued with virtually no let-up until Sunday evening, reaching almost 80 miles an hour at times. One of my beautiful big white pines with a lower branch spread of 30' was the first to go - right on top of some of my favorite rhododendrons.
During the early hours on Sunday, April 4, you'd have thought my place was a war zone. Four trees came down, one on my son's car just about totaling it, one on his cottage knocking out the power, and the other two uprooted with the roots tossing plants, railroad ties, etc., around like matchsticks. Branches from trees still standing were everywhere. The damage to plants was sickening. Two more trees were rocking so badly with the ground cracking and heaving that it was only a matter of time before they'd come down, so we took both down in a very ticklish operation because of the wind.
The wind didn't pick on just trees. Five rhododendrons and two azaleas were blown completely out of the ground. Three screen doors blew off. My roof shingles litter the next county. A window and window frame blew out of my garage. A large magnolia was almost completely defoliated.
Five days later on Good(?) Friday I awoke to find the ground covered with snow (the daffodils in the snow made a beautiful sight). As I walked down through my yard, which by now looked like a test area for Agent Orange, I espied a tree leaning at about 60 degrees. Upon closer examination, I saw a large crack in the snow and ground on one side, so I had to have it taken down right away.
At this point, I've lost a large majority of the trees that were there when I bought the property. I've spent thousands of dollars cutting down, cutting up, and removing trees. I've spent another bundle replacing plants and planting small trees to replace those I've lost (but I doubt they will be big enough to do much good in my lifetime). Right now, I'm trying to decide what to do about the trees that are still standing - take them down or thin to reduce wind resistance. Only a small portion of my losses were covered by insurance (even so, my insurance carrier would like to see me get my insurance coverage elsewhere). I'm on the Internal Revenue Service's red flag list of questionable casualty loss deduction claimants. I've put the two children of the fellow who does my tree work through college. My cat's mad at me because the trees she used for refuge are gone. Friends avoid my place like the plague when even a slight breeze comes up. And dogs shun it for the lack of rest stops. I guess you might say I'm pretty well stumped!
The experiences recounted here have left me with two main thoughts: (1) Kilmer must have been nuts when he wrote "Trees" and (2) I sure hope my rhododendrons like the sun.
There's an old song that goes something like this: "In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia on the trail of the lonesome pine...". I'm rapidly reaching the lonesome pine part!