There is a sweetgum tree just outside my garage door that’s very likely older than my house. When I’ve stood on the roof while hanging decorations or retrieving errant toys and looked up, the branches still towered over me like a cathedral. In the fall, it’s the last tree in my neighborhood to lose its leaves, clinging—like me—to the warmth of summer for as long as possible before surrendering to the cold. Long ago, the tree got the notion to claim more of the yard for its own and a second sprout had poked through the dirt next to the first. Now, a slightly thinner facsimile of its sibling, it leans lazily out over the front yard in quiet rebellion. A third attempt to proliferate ended in a public and graphic act of suburban flora-infanticide when I judged that we had enough sweetgum for one yard.
Despite our history, I have no great affinity for the sweetgum. In my youth I earned a technical diploma in Conservation which, with my love of the outdoors, has brought me into contact with a variety of the American tree species. And while I’ll concede that each fills a subtle niche in the grander ecosystem, I can think of little good to say of the liquidambar styraciflua. When it comes to propagating, no eastern tree is as obnoxious as the sweetgum. Rather than offer a delicious fruit or nut in exchange for an opportunity at continued lineage, it elects to arrogantly drop egg-sized balls covered in pointy spikes. In an added affront, the medieval looking seeds fall year round providing no relief from the agonizing choice of either raking them up or listening to them tumble angrily under the lawnmower before being ejected in a fusillade.
Not satisfied to merely litter my yard with malevolent looking balls of frustration, this particular sweetgum has also been engaged in a prolonged assault on my truck’s paint with a steady flow of sap from high above—like the desperate defenders of some long lost castle rampart pouring oil on the heads of barbarian invaders. I should have seen it coming, of course. While I don’t speak or read Latin—that dusty relic of a language prized by the scientific community— I have been known to make an educated guess every now and then, and the two words in the tree’s binomial name are easy lifting: liquid and ambar. Sounds like “sap is going to drip on your truck if you park underneath it” to me. If you’re not eating pancakes or chinking the gaps of a wooden survival canoe, sap is the most absurd natural substance I’ve come across. People like to inform me of the many wonderful, folksy things they enjoy doing with different tree saps. I’m content to miss out. Not missing out are the ants who gather around each drop like hoofed beasts at a sub-Saharan watering hole. Invariably, every now and then one breaks ranks and breaches the interior, forcing me to wage a scorched-earth campaign with bug spray and traps—such is the cost of a shady parking spot in the sub-tropics.
Like many suburbs in the eastern United States, ours is amok in the ubiquitous eastern gray squirrel—or Sciurus carolinensis if you want to sound like a Hogwarts alumni—and while I hunted them mercilessly when I was young, I enjoy having them live in the trees in my yard. They remind me that the world is not all brick façade and high-capacity power lines. And while they will happily make fluffy nests high up in the pines or the maple, they have no interest in living in the sweetgum. I’ve often waited for some expat squirrel to arrive in the neighborhood and, seeing no good trees available to build their new home, take the sweetgum at a bargain price. But they just crowd in with their new neighbors—nest alongside nest—and avoid the sweetgum as though there was a history to the tree known only to them. They will climb up it; run around the branches; chase one another; throw sticks and spiky balls down from above. But when the sodium light at the end of the drive comes on as dusk, back home they go to the pines— skipping across the lawn before a local cat out on the prowl notices them. The sweetgum, it seems, has few friends at the Mill Pond suburb.
The tree will be here, just outside the garage door, long after I’m gone; at least I hope it will. My wife has always wanted to cut it down, afraid that it may fall onto the house in the middle of one of our many violent storms. Cut down an entire tree? In my own yard? She knows me well enough though that it’s never escalated into a serious discussion on the subject—and I live with the irony of defending a tree that I despise. But trees are trees: I’ll prune them; trim them; shorten them; even transplant them when necessary. But cut one down? Never. Besides, any tree that manages to fall uphill deserves a roof for its martyrdom. When I sit here to write, I look at the sweetgum a lot. It isn’t a particularly interesting looking tree. Nor is it very aesthetic, as far as trees go. But I invariably lose myself in the deep channels of its bark. I’ll watch the birds come, act belligerent for seemingly no reason, and then flit off for a view without a man at a desk. There’s something peaceful about watching trees—you don’t have to be John Muir to appreciate it either. Not even the cantankerous sweetgum can manage to look homely when its rustling leaves glimmer in the breeze. I’ve grown comfortable in our stalemate—like two old battleship captains who can self-confidently appreciate the pluck of their adversary having lasted so long. I’ll rake the balls, and those that I don’t will be randomly discharged around the lawn in pyrotechnical fashion. I’ll wash the truck and I’ll kill the ants. I’ll defend its honor to my wife—assuring her of its vitality and vigor. I’ll ensure the cycle doesn’t end. Someday, perhaps the sweetgum will reward me with inspiration, but if not, that’s fine too.