Beth Dolinar

Column Beth Dolinar

Beth Dolinar has been writing her column about life, both hers and the rest of ours, for over 20 years. When not on the page, she produces Emmy-winning documentaries for public television, teaches writing to university students, and enjoys her two growing children.

Fearing the end for an old friend

September 5, 2013

Ours is the yellow Victorian with the big tree in the front yard. That’s how people have always referred to our place; it’s what I tell the pizza delivery guy.

That pin oak tree makes the house, dominating the front yard and casting its long shadow in all directions. Generations of squirrels and robins and chickadees have raised their families in that tree; the ashes of our two beloved dogs were scattered beneath it. We like to think that Clementine and Mabel are now in the shiny green leaves, and in the acorns that are starting to drop.

But the tree is sick. For the past several years, we’ve noticed that the branches aren’t as leafy on the one side. Even in summer, whole branches are bare or sparse. A week ago, sitting on the porch swing, I heard a cracking and looked across the yard to watch an enormous, black branch crashing onto the sidewalk.

Several years ago we consulted an arborist, an expert who noted that the roots are probably truncated on the one side. He showed us how the trunk flares out into the ground on one side, but goes straight into the earth on the other. On that side, he said, the roots are likely shorter and weaker, leading to the sparse leaves on branches above.

The tree doctor checked the bark and noted some decay. I asked what we could do to help, expecting him to suggest more testing, fertilizer or tree medicine, but I was wrong. His answer surprised me.

“It’s old and it’s dying,” he said. Trees, like the rest of us, have a life span. They get old and sick and they die.

Here I’d thought trees live forever. Aren’t there “witness” trees on the historic battlegrounds of Gettysburg? Trees that were there and young during the war, watching all of it? And they are still there, now shading the tourists and the granite statues. How old must they be?

Pin oaks live 90 to 120 years. If the tree was planted when our house was built, then it’s getting up there, close to 120. Our tree, once so majestic and grand, is a little old lady now, arthritic and gnarled and balding. From the front porch, I can see four major branches with no leaves. They are dry and dead and look almost charred. They’ll have to be chopped down before they fall down.

It hadn’t been windy or storming the day that branch crashed down. It just fell. It’s almost as if the tree was getting my attention, telling me it’s running out of steam, too old and tired to hold those arms out for much longer.

She is old and probably sick. We’ll summon the arborist again, and do what we have to improve her health and extend her life.

But the tree won’t live forever. Someday it will have to be chopped down, a task sure to be laborious and expensive and sad. Like the people who live here, that tree is part of the house, part of the neighborhood, part of the family. Maybe we’ll plant a young tree in the same spot, but I know it won’t be the same.

Beth Dolinar can be reached at



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