Collins' tree

Richard Collins perches between the three tops of a massive spruce that once graced the Collins sisters’ yard. Miki Collins photo

Sometime before World War II, a tiny spruce tree sprouted and began to grow beside the old cabin of the 1920s-era homestead that would become my home.

When I was a little girl, that spruce tree began dying prematurely, a burnt orange stain insidiously draining downward from the once-svelte top, bright green needles yielding to the grim rust. The young tree, nicely past the sapling stage, stood smack between the old cabin and the new log home my parents were erecting: a lovely, well-balanced tree creating a dark green counterpoint to the surrounding birch and aspen forest

“I hope it doesn’t blow down while we’re gone this winter,” my mother worried. My sister Miki and I sadly wished to stay home in our cold, drafty old cabin and as we traveled across the states visiting relatives and national parks, the thought of that tree blowing down haunted my immature mind. Miki and I were always resistant to change, and perhaps that once-healthy young tree succumbing to a mysterious disease epitomized the worst aspects of change.

Before flying the family home in the spring, our father made an advance trip to open the cabin. I felt overwhelmed with melodramatic anxiety when he returned.

“Is the spruce tree still standing?” I whined in my squeaky pre-adolescent voice.

He stared at me, confused for a moment. But then he cheerfully replied, “The tree is still standing!” A weight lifted from my heart.

My father and brother would have happily chopped the thing down as the disease continued over the summer. But we females, all overly attached, wailed our objections. Our clever mother researched coniferous diseases and decided that if we simply cut the top off before the gangrene spread too far, the remaining tree would recover.

It seems a bit ludicrous now, first to invest so much emotion in a tree, and secondly, to think whacking off the top would cure it. But our father, always obliging, climbed up and sliced through the 7-inch trunk to remove the upper third of the tree.

I was too young to feel amazed that the amputation succeeded. With the diseased top removed, the lower branches retained their vitality, and eventually a new top began to grow. Not just one spike, but three, nearly equal in size, emerged just below the tar-smeared cut to shoot skyward like a sprouting dark green display of fireworks.

Fifty years passed. We grew up with our spruce tree right at the front door of our new cabin. We buried little pet mice and window-struck birds between its spreading roots and climbed through the big ladder-like branches. Its massive breadth sheltered the cabin from howling winter winds and protected sleds, tools and firewood from the snow. The reaching branches brushed faces and shoulders whenever we passed our old friend.

When the trunk grew thick with age our father secured a cable guy wire to the base to help support his 80-foot antenna tower. Twenty years later we pried free the cable, now choking the expanding trunk, and re-set it over blocks to help protect the wood.

Neighbor kids climbed the tree when they visited. Our nephew scrambled up with a saw to trim a few dead branches. Several generations of retired sled dogs scratched nests in the soft, dry needles at the base. Our parent grew old, and passed away. Miki and I entered middle age and began growing old too.

And the spruce tree grew old. The three new treetops each achieved the size of a moderately large tree, each one about 45 feet tall, clinging to the sides of the old stump. All healthy and still growing, the three trees shed clouds of yellow pollen and dropped thousands of cones. It sprouted copious lime-green spruce tips and attracted squirrels and grouse, chickadees and red polls and gray jays.

In the end that massive growth is what brought the whole thing down. Clinging to the sides of the truck instead of balanced solidly on top, the new tops rolled with the wind, flexing those joints with more and more weight until finally the heaviest, most exposed top blew down with a horrible crash, just missing the cabin gables. A few months later the second top, now more exposed to the wind, also came down.

The last top teetered lonely and exposed. It tilted away from the cabin but I worried that a bad gust might knock it back into the cabin or the guy wire. A visiting arborist kindly drilled out a slender core, surprising us all at how solid the tree remained, with no rot down despite that long-exposed scar, but I knew we should cut it down.

In the end the final treetop chose its own time. It ripped off this spring with an agonized shriek during a May thunderstorm. The top’s base just above where it sprang from the trunk measured 12 inches and it, too, showed remarkably little rot. The three tops simply over-weighted their joints at the trunk until they failed.

I cut a fine stack of firewood and a year’s supply of twigs for starting dog-pot fires. I’m more philosophical now about change and loss, but the hole in the sky above that jagged trunk hurts my heart. I’ve seen spruce trees that recovered after losing the top third, but never after losing over two-thirds of its height as this old tree has.

In Miki’s flower garden, 15 feet from the relic, a tiny spruce shoot recently emerged from the soft soil. When a lone spruce tree falls, often replacements sprout to replace it. If this baby survives, it’s comforting to see the young potential growing there.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins live in Lake Minchumina.