My Grandmother Sycamore Tree
What could she tell me, my Grandmother Sycamore tree, if I were quiet enough to hear her?
I was outside first thing the other morning, apologizing to the giant sycamore tree in my front yard. I pulled out two nails I had driven into the tree for a decorative hobbit’s door and recanted my thoughtless act of brutality. It might not harm, but it must have hurt.
I don’t think I am anthropomorphizing when I say the sycamore tree didn’t reply, at least not in words. I consoled myself with a quote from the late poet and essayist C. D. Wright, who wrote about forests and backyards, “A tree is a resilient fighter. Likewise poets, single mothers and teachers.”
The great sycamore towers over my house, but I was seeing her with new eyes. Late into the previous night I’d read Richard Powers’ novel “The Overstory,” flipped again through Peter Wohlleben’s nonfiction “The Hidden Life of Trees,” and pulled a short stack of other tree books off my library shelf. My tree reading reminds me of the consciousness-raising meetings with other young women in the 1970s, but this time it’s about trees instead of feminism.
What could she tell me, my Grandmother Sycamore tree, if I were quiet enough to hear her? I could learn her biblical heritage because a sycamore tree is what short Zacchaeus climbed in Jericho to get a better look at Jesus. That’s how in Christianity the sycamore became a symbol of clarity. In Judaism, it is the tree of life because it gives both fruit (the sycamore fig variety) and wood. In Egyptian mythology, the sun rose each morning from the sacred sycamore of turquoise that stood at the gates of heaven.
The American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) can be gargantuan, growing up to 120 feet tall with a massive trunk. In 1770, George Washington recorded the girth of a sycamore on the Ohio River that measured 45 feet around. The largest sycamore in the state is located in Tulsa’s Maple Ridge. When last measured, it stood 108 feet tall with a crown spread of 114 feet. The property owners say it drops leaves the size of dinner plates.
The sycamore in my yard is about 90 feet tall and 80 years old, probably planted when the house was built in 1928 as a shade tree against the west sun. That’s why I refer to her as Grandmother Sycamore; she’s old and, God willing, she’ll grow older. She is a member of one of the oldest plant families in the world that dates back a 100 million years. Sycamores can live to be 500 years or older. At about half that age, they become hollow but still healthy. Natives used hollow sycamores for canoes, and settlers used them for storage.
I can see several holes in my sycamore where two squirrels pop in and out, using them as entrances for their personal high-rise condo. They share the tree with an assortment of birds, some of whom stop by for only a few minutes and others who build nests and raise families. One year, red-tailed hawks lived there.
Sycamores aren’t as popular as backyard trees as they once were, certified arborist Tim Nall of We B Trees told me. Their seed balls are messy maintenance, and they are too large for smaller contemporary lots. Plant a sycamore away from the house, he says, because they need space. Oklahoma winds keep them to about 75-80 feet in height, on average.
Sycamore balls can be composted or rubbed with peanut butter and rolled in seeds for a winter bird feeder. I might try that. The inner bark can be made into a medicinal tea for colds and cough. I won’t try that.
Sycamore bark is one of the tree’s most appealing features: pale and smooth on its top branches, thick and brown on the trunk. As the tree ages and the girth spreads — I know just how that feels! — the outer bark dies and flakes off in chunks. That’s where I drove the nails for the hobbit door. Maybe Grandmother Sycamore didn’t even feel it.
Still, it was rude behavior. A song popped into my mind from the old “Mr. Zing and Tuffy” TV show: “Don’t put your feet on the furniture, a sofa doesn’t sit on you.” Same thing with trees and nails.