Travel the rural roads in this part of the country and you’ll see them along roadsides and driveways and in yards. Green in summer, a painter’s palette of orange, yellow, and red for a few glorious weeks in the fall.

These giant sugar maples are New England’s signature trees, now that most of the old elms are gone. These maples are large, often behemoths. With heavily fissured bark. Sometimes they are blackened from a lightning strike, hollowed out by rot, or with a crown snapped out. But still alive.

When we bought our Maine farm old maples were a selling point for us. The house, well, it was a fixer-upper. The antique maples lined up like soldiers up and down the main road and the short dirt driveway about 15 feet apart. They were big, and old, but the green monsters were not immortal. There were a significant number of gaps in their lines, sometimes long ones. You could see where others had once filled out their ranks.

It was only a few years and there would be more gaps. The power company cut some that were threatening the electric lines. We hired an arborist to take down others when they deteriorated past the point of safety. I felled a couple myself. So far, we’ve had to take down eight of these old trees, the latest last fall.

When the arborist we use took down one at the head of our short driveway — one that hadn’t been hollowed out — my wife took the time to count the rings. Roughly 160. This was in the late ‘90s, so, that maple was there before Confederate artillerymen fired on Fort Sumter. That tree, and its fellows along the rural roads of New England and New York have seen some history.

America’s history of “urban forestry” goes back to old Europe, and it’s a longer one than you would think, according to the booklet Our Heritage of Community Trees, published by the Pennsylvania Urban and Community Forestry Council in 2002. “Though landscape trees were not a main concern to settlers struggling to survive in the wilderness, trees were planted along streets and around the “common” pasture in nearly every New England hamlet,” authors Henry Gerhold and Stacy Frank note.

The leafy vase-shaped American elm became the go-to tree species for many towns and villages. But how rows of sugar maples became common along many of the rural roads of Maine and other New England states is less clear.

Kevin Smith, the senior plant physiologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Center in Durham, N.H., theorizes that roadside trees “were planted to provide shade and reduce the temperature along country roads in rural New England.”

Sugar maples, he said, were “native, available, potentially long-lived and contributed to sugar making as being open-grown and readily accessible.”

His colleague, John Parry, the head of the Northern Research Center’s Urban and Community Forestry program, agrees that trees along urban roads were probably “intentionally planted if they are similar in age and appear to be somewhat lined up. Even in the 1800s, community tree planting was not uncommon,” Parry said.

It was also “common on farms and rural properties to plant trees along driveways and often these were sugar maple,” Parry said. “It may have been just for aesthetics, but perhaps for some they also provided trees close to the house for maple sugaring? Trees around the yard may have been either planted or naturally grown. If a stump sprout or seedling started naturally and was not in an undesirable spot, the owner may have just let it grow.”

However, Parry contends that trees along rural roads were less likely to have been planted. Perhaps they seeded in naturally and, again, were left to grow old because no one wanted to bother clearing them from the stone wall.

Photo courtesy of UMaine Cooperative Extension

Jeff Tarling, the city arborist for the city of Portland, said he thinks “all of New England enjoyed planting ‘rock maple’ as we often heard sugar maple described in the nineteenth century.” And he quoted from an 1864 History of Portland:  “ . . . for the fashion is so fixed, that no person builds a house on a respectable street, but his first object is to plant trees about it.”

Eric Sloane, the twentieth-century artist/writer/historian famous for his drawings and books on early American life and landscape, wrote in A Reverence for Wood that it was a custom for so-called “husband and wife trees” to be planted in front or at the corners of a farmhouse when it was built.

In another book, Our Vanishing Landscape, Sloane wrote wistfully that “the oldest farmhouses were usually graced with one big first-growth tree. Often the farm homesite itself was chosen by the location of such a tree. Into that tree went the memories of all the forests of great trees that had disappeared around it. The farmer might have said he left it for shade or to please his wife’s decorative sense; more truly it was a deep-felt emblem that tied his efforts to the past, so that he might never forget the time when all pioneer man’s needs came from the forest.”

These old maples — and the giant elms that succumbed to Dutch elm disease over the last few decades — certainly saw a lot of changes:  the decline of agriculture, the resurgence of the forest, the spread of suburbia, the paving of the old dirt roads. Planted or tended or cultivated, they have outlived many of the houses and outbuildings and fences they stood sentinel beside. And in their tenacity they have informed, or honed, our sense of what we feel the New England landscape should look like.

Sugar maples can live for 350 years. Are most sugar maples going to make it that long? No. It’s not any more likely than every human making it to 115.

For a maple to reach its maximum theoretical lifespan “requires very good conditions and such conditions seldom occur over the long term,” said Aaron Bergdahl, the forest pathologist at the Maine Forest Service.

Ice storms, droughts, insect outbreaks, diseases, lightning strikes, root damage from equipment or road-building all have effects, short or long-term, on a tree’s lifespan, Bergdahl said.

“Tree health issues, just like with people, compound over time and hasten their decline,” Bergdahl said.

As health problems proliferate, a tree has less energy to put into growth because more of it is going for defense and maintenance — to keep entropy at bay, so to speak.

A lot of the old maples around our yard and fields were hollow, or partially hollow. One, at a corner of our yard, was about six feet across at the base. But that base was C-shaped, the inside completely hollow. A couple of years after we took it down, we hired a stump grinder guy to take out what was left. As his grinder chewed away its carbide-tipped teeth spat out a huge horseshoe with calks — a “winter shoe” for use on ice and snow. The stump guy added it to his collection. A lot of things get lost around the bases of these old trees. And because these trees are, mostly, yard or fence line trees, sawyers are leery of them. They’ve often absorbed old metal sugaring spiles and barbed wire that can wreak havoc on a bandsaw.

Hollowness is a dead giveaway, pun intended, that wood rotting fungi are at work. The fungi get in through wounds — broken branches, insect damage, and so on. The tree tries to compartmentalize the infection, but once wood rot fungi are established they expand about a foot a year and the battle takes a lot of the tree’s resources, said Bergdahl.

Photo courtesy of Maine Audubon

It’s an example of a “chronic stressor,” he said. And that chronic stressor makes trees more susceptible to pests that would leave normally healthy trees alone.

Bergdahl believes Maine’s old roadside maples suffer from a variety of chronic and secondary stresses, ranging from road salt to root damage, herbicides used on rights-of-way, soil compaction, “there are very many possibilities and combinations.”

Many people, wanting to keep the giants around as long as possible, invest in pruning of dead limbs, cabling up weak ones and other extreme measures to prolong the tree’s life. But many experts say that, depending on how serious the tree’s decline is, you’re probably better off planting a new one.

These days there are a lot of choices, and even many kinds of maples, specifically cultivated for fall color or growth habit or disease resistance. Researching the choice of a replacement can be a learning experience and, well, an investment in the future. And there’s no time like the present. Spring is coming.

Joe Rankin writes on forestry and nature. He lives in New Sharon.

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