Of Trees and Ants

I have owned this house since the spring of 1990. Shortly after I bought it, my friend Heather gave me a twig from a pussy willow tree which she had rooted. Not knowing quite what to do with it, or quite what I wanted to do with my backyard at the time, I dug a hole and stuck the twig in, rationalizing that it would probably die anyway.

Over the following years I learned a few things:
1. I am not a gardener. I kill most plants. With the exception, it seems, of pussy willows.
2. Pussy willow is a tree, not a bush. I always thought it was a little bushy thing. Nope.
3. Not only is a pussy willow a tree, it grows into a LARGE tree. As in a 30 foot large tree.
4. Pussy willow trees attract bugs. Lots of bugs.

All of these things aside, I loved that tree. It was mine; I had given it life. I watched it grow and thrive over the years. I hung garden decorations from its branches. I sat beneath its shade and watched the kids swim and play in the yard. Sometimes as I sat under it, a branch stirred by a breeze would gently tap me on the head. When I was upset I would go and talk to my tree and somehow I always seemed to derive comfort from it. When I had my backyard professionally landscaped back in 2013 I told the landscaper that the only things sacred in the yard were the pool and the pussy willow tree. Everything else was expendable. And accordingly, he worked around my tree. Stephen and I twined white Christmas lights through its branches for summer lighting. I always felt guilty when I had to trim parts of the tree, like I was hurting a friend.

Last summer we noticed that a large section on one side of the tree was full of dead branches. This worried me but I figured my tree would be fine. In the fall we went out to set up our Christmas lights and I noticed my tree seemed to be oddly leaning to one side. We’d had a severe wind storm a few days earlier, and it seemed major damage had been done to the tree, to the point that some of the branches were actually lying on top of the fence. In fact, the entire tree was leaning sideways.

Now, as attached to the tree as I was, I am also a realist. If the tree came down in a storm it would take out a large section of our fence, and possibly tear up parts of the driveway as the roots ripped up. As much as it broke my heart, I knew we had no choice but to have the tree removed. And so Stephen called the tree guys and a date was set.

About a week before the tree was to go, I went out back alone to say my goodbye to my tree. I was crying, because I am an overly emotional person, and I put both hands on the tree and said out loud, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” And some of you will think I’m nuts, and some of you will totally understand, but I swear I heard the tree say simply, “It’s time.” And as I stood there I understood what my tree was saying. It had come to the end of its lifespan, and it knew this, and was saying goodbye by comforting me as it had always done.

And then one Friday morning I came home from work and the tree was gone. Sawdust and an empty space were all that remained. Well, not quite all. Stephen had them leave the stump, thinking we can use it as a base for a fountain or a statue of some sort. And he also had them cut out a biscuit of the trunk for me to keep. And that was when I realized just what my tree had meant by, “It’s time.” For the trunk was riddled with holes. Virtually the entire center of the trunk was missing, with just some blackened bits of wood remaining. My tree had been dying. The tree guy told Stephen that we took it down just in time. He said another storm would’ve brought it down, and our estimates of the damage to fence and driveway would have been accurate. I admired the biscuit, agreed that we did the right thing, and left the round piece of wood on the kitchen counter to dry.

And that’s where it gets interesting…..

We came back to the kitchen several hours later to find a black ant wandering around on the counter, and two more on top of the piece of wood. Assuming – correctly – that they had come out of the wood, Stephen placed it in the sink, weighed it down and submerged it in water. We left it for a few hours and returned to find twenty – yes, twenty, we counted! – black ants either drowned or swimming in the water! And Sean killed one that was roaming across the kitchen floor. Stephen drained the sink and ran more water. Next morning there were more ants in the water. He took the piece of wood and sealed it in a Ziploc bag, thinking to suffocate any ants remaining. Every day there would be several ants crawling around in the bag, only to meet their demise by squishing. How many ants could there possibly be in this one little piece of wood???? I started to get worried that keeping the wet wood in the sealed plastic bag would cause mildew or rot, so I came up with a creative way to let it dry while containing any further ants. I placed a bowl upside down in the sink and set the wood on top, then ran water to just beneath the wood. The wood could dry and any ants that were yet to emerge couldn’t escape into my kitchen. And it worked. Over the next few days we kept getting more ants out of it, until finally one morning I discovered a much larger, much uglier, winged ant floating in the water. Yup, we got a queen. Stephen made me send  him a photo because he said he’d never actually seen a queen ant before. That seemed to be the end of the ants, though there was just one more appearing two days later. I joked that he was the teenaged ant, who slept in and missed the party!

In total there were 35 ants, including one queen and one late teenager, in that piece of wood. That was just a small piece from the tree. Imagine how many more ants there would have been in the rest of the trunk? No wonder my tree knew it was time.

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2 Responses to Of Trees and Ants

  1. Heather Smedley says:

    Watch for possible new growth in the stump next spring….it could sprout lots of little branch-lets!

  2. Tom Story says:

    It is easy to start a pussy willow. Get a pussy willow display from a florist or even from the wild. Instead of displaying it dry put the fresh cut ends in water. You can get a hormone powder to make the rootless appear faster but it’s not really necessary. In a week or two roots will appear and you can start the whole process over again.

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