Requiem for a silver maple

This story was first published in the Chicago Tribune Magazine.

Perched high in the silver maple, Jose Moreno looked like a rare and malevolent woodpecker, crested with a bright blue hardhat, canting out from the trunk on spiked boots, and dangling, between the legs of his grimy jeans, an orange-handled chain saw. He grabbed the saw, revved up its growl, and slid it smoothly through the tree's last living limb. For one silent moment, nothing happened. Then the top of the tree--so tall it could peer across all of Ravenswood, so old it had known the early days of the "L," so hopeful it was already tinged red with spring buds--leaned just a few inches north. In one heart-rending crack, it arced out and down, smacking against the trunk and then the earth.

"It's over," said Gail Fearon, her cheeks red with cold and damp with tears. "It's the end of everything."

In 90 years of life, the tree gave shelter. At least seven families had picnicked and squabbled in its shade, generations of squirrels had nested deep in the crooks of its branches, sparrows and cardinals had made it a regular rest stop. A swarm of glossy beetles had found comfort there as well, until their gnawing and boring severed the link between the tree's long branches and its widespread roots. In death, the tree gave too, forfeiting its craggy-barked old age to rid the neighborhood--perhaps the continent--of the plague curled deep in its heartwood. "She was just glorious," Fearon said of the tree she had lived beside for 20 years. "She was a grand lady."

The tree's untimely demise has been mourned since last summer, when a federal agent marked it with a vivid green "X." But it led an otherwise uncelebrated life, growing quietly to some 65 feet as the story of one small house, and one small swatch of Chicago history, unfurled beneath its branches.

The silver maple had taken root in the bald back yard of what was once a commuter suburb. It had reached above the passing "L" crowded with German and Swedish and Polish workers. It had branched out in the coal-clouded air of industrial Ravenswood--incubator of Abbott Laboratories, producer of post cards and marimbas, cradle of movies. It had filled in, deep green and dull brown, through the darkness of air-raid drills and the silence of urban neglect. It had climbed high, taking its place as one of the tallest in a neighborhood prized for leafy quiet. It had settled into thick-limbed maturity as a new breed of homesteader scrubbed apartments into condos and factories into lofts.

When it came down, a crowd gathered to watch. Skilled arborists assessed the tree's imposing height and considered its tight urban quarters--boxed in by house, "L," fence, and a web of cable, telephone and electric lines. State and city inspectors kept sharp-eyed surveillance of the infested debris as it was cleared, chipped and--after a night in bug quarantine--incinerated.

New residents fretted over their investment in a deep-rooted enclave, suddenly denuded. And longtime friends cried, seeing in the mighty tree's final thud all the children who had laughed under its cover, now grown; all the parents who had rested in its shade, now gone.

It was not a showy tree. It was steadfast.

The little silver maple laid down roots in 1909. That was the year the Pyle family--Charles, 42, a carpenter, his wife, Emma, 38, and their 14-year-old daughter, Mildred--moved into Ravenswood. The suburb had been carved out of farmland in 1868 and annexed to the city in 1889. Rich folks found the space for mansions, while the thrifty could build with wood, outlawed in the city post-Fire.

In 1902, a tidy frame house with a peaked roof and squared-off bay window had been dragged down the block and set into place at 2698 N. Lincoln St. It was renamed 4511 N. Wolcott Ave. as the city standardized its addresses and weeded out duplicate street names. The house fit neatly, though the ghost of a door to nowhere and a brick foundation that doesn't quite match still attest to its transplant status.

A huge conifer nursery once dominated the area. Peddlers hawked saplings from carts. But in those days, when patches of woods and open stretches of prairie still ambled across the map, homeowners were as likely to dig up a nice-looking shoot as to buy one. Which is probably how the tree came to live 15 feet behind the transplanted house, homesteading the fresh square of bare back yard.

In 1907 the Northwestern Elevated Railroad had rumbled into Ravenswood station just north of the little house. It brought a tide of working-class families, like the Pyles, spurring construction of apartment buildings and turning some homes, including the bungalow on Lincoln, into rentals. Soon young Mildred Pyle was commuting to her job as a clerk in the Loop.

Silver maples, in their smooth-barked, silver-hued youth, grow quickly, often a half-inch in diameter each season, sprouting branches by their second birthday. The tree reached out to a flourishing neighborhood. From two doors north came the clang of the Central Music Co.'s machine and woodworking shops. On Wilson Avenue, pharmacist Wallace C. Abbott manufactured his cure-all "alkaloidal" tablets, the product that launched Abbott Labs. Bell & Howell made cameras that captured the Charlie Chaplin slapsticks and shoot-em-up westerns shot in Chicago. From his flat on Hermitage, Carl Sandburg composed "Chicago," ode to the "stormy, husky, brawling City of the Big Shoulders."

Details of the tree's youth remain hazy, though the names of those who tended it can be traced through the graceful script of county land records, census entries, church registers, cemetery logs and the brittle, string-bound pages of expired phone books. It knew a succession of owners and renters, including, in 1920, Millard F. Hatton, 61, a salesman for a land company, his wife, Katharine, 59, and their son, Robert, 29, stock clerk for a mail-order firm.

From 1924 to 1929, a carpenter named Erick Peterson and his wife, Ida, cared for the tree.

The early '30s were thirsty years when the tree put on little weight. It passed from the hands of William C. Warneke, a real-estate man, and his wife, Laura, to William and Mabel Fleig. In 1933 William Fleig--thrifty, taciturn, a collector of stamps and string--rented out the little house with its lanky maple, refusing to sell to his newly married son who shared his two-flat. "He said it was because it was stucco, which can hide all sorts of problems," says granddaughter Barbara Sevedge, who heard the story from her mother. "My guess is he didn't want them to move away."

The tree found long-term friendship with Wallace and Helen Fleming, who moved in in 1937.

Wallace Fleming had been a real-estate agent, but was scraping through the Depression as a school crossing guard, building manager and accountant. "It was a big deal," says son William Fleming. "That was the first house they'd owned." Jane, 10, finally had her own room. Bill, 12, was pleased to have a basement for his model-train set, even if it came with a coal furnace that needed tending morning and night. From his bedroom window he could track both the "L" and the Chicago & North Western. The 10-inch girth of the maple didn't yet block the view.

By then the maple had company: a handsome elm out front, a couple of messy mulberries in back, and an ailanthus right up against the kitchen. The maple's lower branches had already been trimmed, leaving it useless when Bill, returning home past midnight, needed a discreet ladder. Instead the ailanthus offered assistance. The tree had a modest patch of tomatoes with which to pass the time, an upstart bridal-wreath bush cramping its northern reach, and a garage to contemplate. Remembers Bill: "Dad said that during Prohibition that garage was used by people bootlegging booze."

Breezes brushing past the leaves carried the sound of tuning chimes from J.C. Deagan Inc. Horses trotted through the alley on their rounds for Bowman Dairy Co. Sunday nights, wisecracking Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy floated from the Philco cathedral radio inside.

By 1944, the tree had no one to rake and burn its leaves, now that Jane had left for college and Bill had joined up. Curt Teich Co., on Ravenswood, switched from producing quaint picture post cards to Army invasion maps. Nights were darkened by air-raid drills, directed on the block by Wallace Fleming.



Then it was up to Nippy the Boston terrier, who harbored a deep hatred of cats, and Wallace, who held a soft spot for petunias, to keep the maple company in the back yard. Once the "L" station was shut in 1949, even the commuters were gone. Wallace and Helen moved to a co-op on Ridge in 1958, passing care of the tree to James and Evelyn Joesel and their sons Jim and Bill.

"At that time, two boys must have been dangerous," says Evelyn Joesel. "People didn't want to rent. We settled for a basement apartment until we could buy. Finally we got that house--it had a back yard." And a tree.

"That tree was absolutely huge to me," says Bob Joesel, who was born at the Wolcott address. "It was the center of anything we did out there." Summers, the tree held securely to a tire swing and kept watch over the above-ground pool. Winters, it collected snowdrifts in its craggy toes, leaving a natural foxhole. Falls, it cast flights of twirling seedpods and piles of broad brown leaves, good for forts, tunnels, and for dulling the plummet from the next-door balcony. Year round, the sturdy trunk, now darker with age, offered the most secure position for hide-and-seek.

"I was probably 4 years old and in a mood, all rude," remembers Bill Joesel. "My father told me: `That was the ornery tree. If you feel like being ornery, go out and butt your head up against it.' I went outside on the patio, took a running start, put my head down and pretty near knocked me out on my butt. I never did that again. I was ornery a whole lot less."

Wilson Avenue's business district, once fed by the "L" station, had withered. Factories were quiet. Swedes and Germans had moved out, and Greeks, displaced by the building of the University of Illinois Circle Campus, moved in. Despite the influx of Hispanic and Asian residents, Ravenswood was losing population. For the tree, however, these were wholesome years, when it laid down thick layers of moist sapwood. The maple now outpaced the roofline--and all its colleagues. That didn't stop 5-year-old Bob Joesel from attempting to fell it. "I had a little ax and I'd hack at it," he says. "I'd go about my business, come back and hack some more."

As the boys outgrew their shaded haven, the tree bid the family farewell. Its new owners were old acquaintances. Jeff and Gail Fearon had grown up in the neighborhood. They'd tried living in Rogers Park one year, but in 1979 came back to raise baby Jennifer, soon joined by Katie and Jeffie. Says Gail, "This block was my family."

It was a tough time for the tree, reaching middle age, cringing as its friends on the street side succumbed to the Dutch elm epidemic. "They touched in the middle of the street," remembers Liz Boynton, neighbor to the tree for 50 years. "It broke my heart to see them cut down." The city replanted with a mix of quick-growing silver maples, Norway maples and green ash. "Who knew it would be a cafeteria for the Asian longhorns?" says Jeff Fearon.

The tree waited patiently as Jeff Fearon--at least the third carpenter to live in the fixer-upper--renovated, tearing out one room and revamping the ancient electrical and heating systems. Then he turned his attention to the back yard. "You have no idea how many leaves are on that tree," he says. "The last thing you want to do is work all day and come home and look at a yard full of leaves." But at $2,500 to remove the maple, he shrugged and let it stand. Raking aside, there was something nice about it. "One of the first things we did as a young couple was to build that bench around it," says Gail Fearon.

From April to October, the maple, now tall enough to peek into ever-expanding Ravenswood Hospital, presided over family activities. The five-sided bench made a runway for Katie and Jennifer's fashion shows. It was the jumping-off point for the sandbox and the wading pool. The tree didn't complain when the Fearons paved over its patch of grass, somehow burying Gail's marquise-cut engagement diamond in the rubble. Instead it held one long arm across the basketball court, becoming the focus of the game's trickiest shot: over the branch, around the ComEd wire and into the basket. "That might get you H," says Jeff Fearon.

Jeffie spent countless afternoons skinning his knees against the bark. "I'd always say I was going to climb it," he says. "But I never had the guts." His father rearranged the kitchen, shifting the sink and window so Gail could admire the tree's spreading midsection.

Night after night the tree listened quietly while Jeff jawed over the fence with Al Boynton and Gail confided in her friend Arlene Chaput. It chaperoned many a long evening the girls spent with their boyfriends, the dark sky filtered through leaf cover. When each girl graduated from high school, the tree held a string of white lights above the festivities.

Beyond the yard, the scenery was changing. Curt Teich Co. had been converted to Post Card Place Lofts. Small houses shaded by big trees were fetching surprising prices.

It was during one of those humid July talks with Al, under leaves that looked strangely pale and had started dropping early, that Gail noticed something big and black and crawling. She called the number that newscasters had been posting.

The Asian longhorn beetle snuck into Chicago five to seven years ago aboard an untreated packing crate bound for Polar Hardware Manufacturing, on Montrose Avenue. The voracious, if slow-moving, bugs spread first to the 4300 block of Wolcott and took up residence in the maples, horse chestnuts, birch, ash and elms.

"This sucker seems to thrive on the most vigorous and healthy trees," says senior city forester Joe McCarthy from his post at Beetle Command Center. In the summer heat, the beetles find romance. The fairer sex scratches anywhere from 30 to 60 holes into the soft upper bark, nesting one tiny egg in each. Newly hatched larvae feast on the tasty cambium and phloem before digging deep into the heartwood to pupate. Come spring, adult beetles chew their way out, leaving perfectly round bullet-size holes and a sprinkling of sawdust in their wake.

Limbs weak, lifelines severed, the tree is doomed to a slow death. But the beetle family will thrive until its host is felled, chipped and burned.

When USDA inspector Joe Schafer came to see the tree, he needed only a minute. Like 461 public and 239 other privately owned trees in the city, it was marked with an "X." Jeff called Gail at work. "It was just like someone told me a friend had died," she said.

And so, on a chill March morning, the maple came down. Hoping for a last-minute reprieve, "we were waiting for George Ryan to call all weekend," said Jeff Fearon. Seven workers from Winkler Tree Service started at the bottom. Steadied only by a spike clamped to each boot and a harness linked to the upper branches, climber Jose Moreno edged his way out onto the lowest of the tree's graceful arms. He wrapped a rope around its middle, double-looped a running bowline, and cinched it in. Wielding his lightweight topping saw with ease, he sliced clean through the bough. Two groundmen dragged the branch--pocked with holes and oozing white larvae--to the steel-toothed mouth of the chipper truck. Moreno was already slipping his noose around the next.

"Beirut on the Lake," said Jeff, surveying the yard, harshly lit for the first time in decades. Before noon the muscular trunk was left with one red-tipped arm raised in farewell.

"It's like this will to live," said Anthony Aiello, curator of woody plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden, who had joined the pack of steely-eyed inspectors and damp-eyed neighbors in the alley. "Even though this tree is badly affected, it's doing what it's always done." Two reed-slim shoots watched silently as well. They had sprouted unnoticed a couple of seasons back and, clinging to the fenceline, never encountered the mower. Two tender silver maples.

After Moreno buzzed through the top, he "pieced down" the trunk, sawing away 7-foot, 500-pound lengths. At 25 feet, he rappelled down. The team cut in a deep frown to direct the final fall.

There was a delay, while workers refiled their 36-inch blade, snagged on a nail embedded 30 years in, probably the efforts of the Joesel boys to rig a swing. Then the freshly sharpened teeth cut cleanly through the wood. The tree tipped toward the wedge and, with a crack and a thud, was felled. There was still the bench to dismantle, under which was buried a nesting set of Tupperware, a ponytail holder and a string of beads. Then one more crosscut along the very base, revealing 90 delicate rings of dark and light, a lifetime of seasons of growth and rest. The tree that had branched through the serenade of carillons, clutched a diamond in its roots, and shaded nearly a century of barbecues, confidences and trysts, was down.