(This is the first installment of The Hidden Life of the Hideous Tree, a nine-part series about discovering nature in my front yard. Subsequent parts are available on the blog here, and the entire project with additional images is available as an e-book.)
It’s a tree only a bird could love. It wasn’t always this way.
The man who originally owned my house must have spent hundreds — if not thousands — of hours carefully sculpting the Wych elm he imported from Europe. He allowed a single column to grow to a height of about 10 feet, pruning any stray growth below the crown. Branches fanned out from the top, but he forced those to point back down to the ground.
In the summer, when the tree was leafed out, his work had a certain charm. The branches of green flowed like Rapunzel’s hair. In the winter, however, with its skeleton exposed, I always felt sorry for it. You could clearly see how nearly all its attempts to grow had been thwarted.
For the past decade I have mostly allowed the tree to do whatever it wants. That’s partly because I’ve been trying to transform the property into more of a natural habitat for wildlife. The hours and hours that I’ve invested in the yard were spent replacing grass with native trees and plants. I wasn’t particularly crazy about the tree, so it fell to the part of the to-do list that I never got around to do.
And then there was a several-year stretch where I didn’t have time for any yard work. My wife’s transplanted kidney wore out. She eventually got a new one, but while we were waiting, my main job was to be her caregiver. If I had to choose between manicuring a tree or making dinner, I would opt to order takeout.
My time away from the yard ended up being a period of incredible growth for the elm. In just a few years, it tripled in size. New branches sprouted everywhere. But instead of resembling a large beach umbrella, the tree now looks like an umbrella thrashed by a hurricane.
Stuck at home during the Covid-19 quarantine orders, I finally spent some time with the tree. I quickly discovered that it was worth paying attention to all along.
(The Hidden Life of the Hideous Tree is available as an ebook. Follow Kevin Ebi's photography on Facebook or Instagram. Prints of his images are available through LivingWilderness.com.)