In my youth, my grandparentsí house was surrounded by trees. Hardly more than dappled sunlight ever reached it, and that went a long, long way toward keeping it cooler in the summer.
I remember, in the west corner of the fenced-in yard, there were several huge cedars, a gargantuan pecan, maybe two, though one may have been a hackberry, my memory is kinda fuzzy. There were several outbuildings and a huge cypress water cistern, so the sunny side of the house stayed nice and shady. My grandmother grew ferns and other low-light plants back there.
The structures were taken down one at a time during the last years of her life, and Hurricane Andrew wiped out almost all the trees on the west side of the house. Today, the sun beats down on it from about 1 p.m. to dusk.
And ladies and gents, that old shack gets hot.
Metal roof, of course, and high. So I shoulda planted 10 years ago when I moved in, but I was busy doing all kinds of other things. And I was younger, so it didnít seem as hot.
Itís hot now, and Iím older, and thatís double trouble.
So I picked up four southern red oaks, bare root, about three feet tall on sale for a great price, like four bucks each, late season. I also was given three American sycamores by a pal. Four of these were destined for the property line between me and my western neighbor, the rest closer to the house to provide more shade, sooner. Yes, I was worried about hurricanes toppling them, but I looked at it this way: The east side of the house is a wall of oaks, pecans, cedars and hackberries well over 100 feet tall. Secondly, I know itís going to be hot every dadgum summer, I donít know if a hurricaneís going to knock a tree over. Third, lifeís nothing but a big gamble with bad odds anyway.
See, the central air just runs and runs and runs after about noon, one oíclock. The electric bill last week was more then four hundred bucks. Okay, now, donít bombard me with email telling me yours is twice that, a thousand dollarsÖthis is a 1,500 square-foot old house, max, and I am a newspaperman, not one of Sam Waltonís kids. Four c-notes is a small fortune for me. Not to mention, one really good fly rod and a decent reel.
So we decided to plant trees. Searching for fast-growing shade trees suitable for our area was confusing, to put it lightly, but I finally sorted it all out into something resembling a hair braid rather than a birdís nest. I got up early to plant them, when it was cool.
First I had to check through all the shovels in the shed. I have shovels I bought, which I immediately rejected because I knew already they didnít function properly. The rest were some of my dadís shovels, some of my grandparentsí shovels and some Suzie brought with her. My problem is, I need a custom shovel, because for the past 30 years or so I have been searching for a shovel that fits my hand correctly, and have not found one yet. A custom shovel, in fact, is also known as a backhoe.
The first hole went well. I got as deep as I could, threw in some fertilizer and planted the first oak. The second hole went just as well.
The rest had all the makings of an archaeological expedition into an ancient refuse heap.
Now, the house has been here some 150 years or so, and a lot of folks have lived here. Consequently, there was a whole heckuva lot of stuff just thrown on the ground that vanished into the soil, as there not only was no curbside trash pickup in 1850 nor lawnmowers. Who knows how long people were on that lot before that, perhaps there was another house before mine was built. Regardless the soil in the back yard especially is reallyÖbusy.
Digging a hole two feet deep and a foot in diameter in such an environment is challenging. I hit gravel, tons of clam shell, pieces of iron ranging from an inch to four feet long, brick, dish pieces, ribeye bones, beer cans (yeah, I know), ceramic insulators, beer cans (uh-huh), farm implements, axe heads, clothing irons, beer cans (yeah, buddy!), tools I canít guess the use of, pipes, old tree roots and beer cans (*hiccup*!)
I could only get four in the ground the first morning because, even though it was only 7:30 a.m. I was drenched in sweat. I did two more the following morning. Each was well-fertilized and watered.
Bogie, our Lab pup, was with me all this time and, thankfully, did not offer to help me dig. At one hole, I suddenly realized I was standing in a nest of fire ants while I was digging, and Bogie was kind enough to leap up and down and spin circles in the air with me as soon as I realized the err of my methodology.
So I have six trees planted, and Iím not sure where I want the last sycamore yet, but Iíll probably get it in the ground this weekend somewhere. Itís an investment in mutual fund shade. Itíll take years to show a return, and the waiting is the hardest part. But by the time weíre old, we hope to have shade on the west side of the house.
Hereís a curious sidenote. We were walking around in the back pasture over the weekend with Bogie, near the old live oak tree. You may recall that it split lengthwise last year and two-thirds of it collapsed. The tree was probably 500 years old, and it rotted at the split of its main trunk, for decades probably, until finally it could no longer support the weight of its bulky branches.
I noticed something odd poking out of the wood near the middle of the tree where it had split open. I climbed a few steps to investigate, and to my amazement found it was a piece of rusty iron, about two inches wide, half an inch thick, and about six inches of it is sticking out, the rest still imbedded firmly in the wood. The amazing thing is that itís about a foot, foot and a half from the center of the tree! That piece of iron must have been put and left there for some unknown reason hundreds of years ago, and the old oak grew around it. Iíll put a photo with this column on my website at www.native-waters.com if youíd care to see it.
It reminded me again of the antiquity of the land I inhabit. That tree might have been around, though just a sapling, when Columbus ran aground in a stroke of luck that saved his skin, in Hispanolia. It was probably 100 or more years old when we saw our first Spaniards, and over 200 years old when the Chitimacha signed a peace treaty with Gov. Bienville.
Maybe, a century or two hence, someoneíll stand beneath my red oaks and sycamores, neatly laid out, and wonder who planted them. Maybe, when theyíre 20 or 30 years old, Iíll put a piece of turquoise on it, or a silver boloÖmaybe an Indian head penny, let it grow around the memento. Maybe nobodyíll ever find it, like I did in my old oak. But at some level I guess is hard to understand, Iíll always be a part of one of the trees I planted last weekend.