It’s a breezy, sunny Saturday morning, the start of Memorial Day Weekend. I wander out to check up on my pile, first scaring off the resident robin couple that tromps across the top in search of worms and other snackables, then disrupting the squadrons of midges and hover flies that waft above it in the warming air.
Like a stand-alone mountain, my pile is its own, stratified ecosystem. Its ragged summit and steep, flanking slopes are rife with life. I step behind the chest-high log that stands at the rear corner to pee away some coffee, skirting a colony of mushrooms that has sprouted at its base. Midway up a solitary soldier ant marches across the jumbled scree; a loose leaf jostles, and a foraging red worm wriggles into view.
Higher still on the craggy heap, stems of fungi rise here and there amid damp hummocks of sycamore seed fluff, sprouting green like so many chia pets in a pastoral parkland of rot. If Thomas Cole had painted The Course of Empire in miniature, this view would memorialize the passing civilization that is my pile “in the livid light of a dying day.” It makes a pretty picture of decay writ small, my pile.
But as Sir Thomas Overbury once wrote of the love of his life, “All the carnall beauty of my wife is but skin-deep.” The true beauty of my pile is in the fecund, complex matrix of earthen food and shelter and air and unseen seething contained within.
A gust of wind kicks up, and I follow a maple-seed whirligig as it flutters down from the nearby tree that casts its shade and leaves and fruits upon my pile. The flighted seedling comes to rest on the rotted cross section of one of the stacked logs that abut my pile, hewn from a maple tree I had cut down several years ago. I give the lacy winglet a toss, and it helicopters down to the wood chips below.
I will let my pile sit in graceful repose today, for I have other backyard chores to attend to as the holiday, and summer, gets under way.
Having flowered and budded out with countless clutches of winglet seedlings, the female maple trees in my yard let fly their progeny virtually all at once. One day my driveway is clear, the next it’s a fluttering carpet of maple seedlings helicoptered down from above. So thick is this windfall, I need to turn my wipers on to clear the windshield before backing out of the driveway.
The release of the profligate maple seedlings, generally heaviest every other year, is truly a marvel of nature. It’s a spectacle to see the winged seeds spin through the air, a lesson in evolution and aerodynamics that always delighted my young son, especially when I clamor up to the rooftop to toss whole clouds from the gutter along the front porch.
So many seeds rain down across the property that I haul out the leafblower to breeze them into collected piles. By inclination, I’m more of a manual raker and a sweeper than a power blower, but this is one use of the noisy little device that makes sense, if not poetic justice. I take some satisfaction in turning the motorized fan of the spewing little two-stroke against the wind-driven invasion of so many seeds, using their own propulsion to blow them into piles for pick up.
And an invasion it is. Maple trees are early winners in the ecological battleground created by manmade climate change and habitat disruption, at least here in the New England Northeast. I’m not talking sugar maples, a valuable commodity which is in now steady retreat northward. What now dominates the landscape is known in these parts as the swamp maple. This weed of a tree spreads its leaves first and fully and its toe-stubbing, concrete-cracking surface roots far and wide, hogging both sunlight and rainwater.
Swamp maples are the bane of my backyard, though their leaves do make good fodder for my pile. In fact, I read on Cornell University’s Waste Management Institute’s website that maple leaves have a 30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen, ideal for composting. (Oak leaves, with their higher levels of tannin, have a ratio more like 60:1, which means they take longer to decompose and require more green material high in nitrogen to spur their breaking down.)
Having come up with the evolutionary trick of creating countless winged seeds rather than a more modest crop of hard-shelled nuts, swamp maples are unequaled as seed dispersers, though this year the sycamore trees are giving chase. A maple seed whirligig can flutter afar and find purchase in every nook and cranny — a damp gutter, in the gravel driveway and between the cracks of a wood-slatted patio. They particularly thrive in rotting wood-chi mulch, and as such would take over the entire property if given a chance.
In the years I’ve owned my property, I’ve dispatched many of the old maples that had overtaken the landscape, some with a chain saw, others grubbed out by shovel, and many more plucked by hand. I weed out far more maple seedlings than I do dandelions, even crabgrass.
This enterprising native has mostly taken over New England, as the hardwood forests of the eastern North America have changed radically over time. When European settlers arrived, a squirrel could travel from Connecticut to the Mississippi river without ever touching ground — or scarcely a maple tree. The king of the forest was the chestnut, which I’ve read once amounted to 25 percent of all trees in the native forests. It was followed by oak, hickory and other stout hardwoods, prized for the quality of their wood and the useful fruit from their seeds.
“Acer rubrum (Red Maple, also known as Swamp, Water or Soft Maple) is one of the most common and widespread deciduous trees of eastern North America,” I read on Wikipedia. “The U.S. Forest service recognizes it as the most common variety of tree in America. Over most of its range, red maple is adaptable to a very wide range of site conditions, perhaps more so than any other tree in eastern North America. It can be found growing in swamps, on poor dry soils, and most anywhere in between. Due to its attractive fall foliage and pleasing form, it is often used as a shade tree for landscapes.
“Rubrum is one of the first plants to flower in spring. A crop of seeds is generally produced every year with a bumper crop often occurring every second year. A single tree between 5 and 20 cm (2.0 and 7.9 in) in diameter can produce between 12,000 and 91,000 seeds in a season. A tree 30 cm (0.98 ft) in diameter was shown to produce nearly a million seeds. The red maple can be considered weedy or invasive. It is taking over forests in the eastern US, replacing traditional mainstays like oaks, as well as hickories and pines… ”
Each fall I empty my pockets of the acorns I’ve collected from walks in nearby woods, tucking the nuts into the wood chips atop the perennial beds that border the lawn. What the squirrels and deer don’t find sometimes sprouts. So each spring I transplant a few seedlings here and there in my yard where I think they have the best chance of growing mighty and tall.
Many of these little oaks are plucked from the ground by the relentlessly searching squirrels, which have a taste for even sprouted acorns. Other saplings are munched on by deer. Both strike me as short-sighted feeders, whose thoughts of the future end with their next meal at the tip of their nose. I wish squirrels and deer and turkey had a taste for maple seeds and saplings, but they don’t.
Despite this backyard war of attrition, enough young oaks and other prized hardwoods I’ve planted — several beeches, a tulip poplar, hickory and white pine — have made it through the gauntlet of foragers and other obstacles to rise tall enough to begin to take their place in my landscape. I tend these young trees with water and care as other gardeners fuss over roses and heirloom plantings. They will mature long after I’m gone from the property, and may well require further care and culling, but I’m proud that my own little niche of a backyard now stands as a nursery and preserve of a modestly diverse collection of old-school native forest, mostly oaks which sustains an astounding array of native fauna. (How I would love to get my hands on a blight-resistant chestnut sapling, but I’m afraid that onetime mainstay, like the American elm and, increasingly, the white ash, will not soon return to the American landscape.)
I don’t know exactly what kind of oaks I’m bringing home, but judging from the variety of acorns and the leaves on their fledgling limbs, I now have six or seven different types — white, black, red, pin, gamble, as far as I can tell. They may well grow on this piece of ground for the next 100, 200 years; the swamp maples grow stringy and rot out after about 50, often ending up on a roof or across a power line.
Though I mulch up countless winglets that fall across the lawn with the mower, as well as the fluffy seedlets of the sycamores that continue to rain down upon the yard, I just don’t trust adding the maple seeds wholesale to my pile, especially at this late point in its seasonal cycle. I fear that too many would survive through the final stages of converting the heap to humus, leading me to being the unwitting distributor of them to my perennial beds.
So each May, and today is the day, I tidy up the yard by sweeping and blowing away enough maple seedlings from the porch and driveway and out of the gutters to top off the small plastic tarp two times over. And though I’m sure the seeds are loaded with nutrients that would further prime my pile, I drag the lot over to dump them next to the brush pile I keep under an old maple along the street in the corner of the yard. It, like two of the other remaining maples in my yard, is on town property; otherwise, I probably would have taken them down, too. I let the seedlings rot in the shade of the northern side of its trunk.
All these maple seeds don’t deserve my pile, is what I’m saying.