The Mount 'sentry' stands no more: Towering maple cut due to decay

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LENOX — Leaders of The Mount, famed author Edith Wharton's early-20th-century estate, are mourning a death in the landscape family. One of the two "sentry" sugar maples that frame the long driveway used by visitors to the National Historic Landmark had to be dismantled this week.

On the advice of the nonprofit's arborist, Ron Yaple of Race Mountain Tree Services in Sheffield, two-thirds of the twin-trunked, dying maple had to be chopped off because of public safety concerns. It was a key element of the original entrance drive designed and engineered by Wharton's niece, landscape architect Beatrix Farrand.

"The 200-year-old maples are aging, dying, and from time to time we've had to remove one," said Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount. Monday's removal was especially significant because the "`sentry' trees mark a pivotal turn in the drive, the `aha' moment where you see the house for the first time," she pointed out.

Originally, there were about 50 sugar maples, and about half of them survive.

The decision to take down the towering maple, part of the arboreal canopy lining the entrance drive, was required after one of the trunks snapped recently, the victim of old age and internal decay. The twin trunks had been braced with rods as a preliminary precaution more than 20 years ago.

"The tree has been challenged structurally for many years," Yaple pointed out. "It weighs tons and can collapse at any time; that's really the challenge the tree presented. There was a big risk of failure and in our business, it's much better to manage a controlled fall than one that's unexpected, despite the sadness of taking down a tree that was quite vital, especially for its age, with its crown still in full leaf."

As he described the tree's condition, "once it reaches a certain age, the hardwood begins to decay and although it was undiseased from a pathogenic perspective, it had fungal issues causing decay, a separate issue."

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"Given the proximity to the drive, we had no alternative," Wissler said. The trunk had come down on a Saturday evening several weeks ago, with no adverse weather. "We'd been watching it, and we realized it was time," she noted.

"It was a very emotional moment," Wissler acknowledged. "I witnessed it; it's like putting down your horse. It's hard; a huge beast, and I make a point of being present every time I have to put down an animal, so this was sort of like that. But as hard as it is, always at the end you feel relief because you know it's the right thing."

The horizontal "remains" of the dismantled tree will have a woodland life nearby as they gradually decompose to dust over the next two centuries. Wood chips will line the estate's pet cemetery, while the large limbs will be laid to rest, to to speak, in the forest to provide nourishment for the habitat.

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Given the fixed lifespan of a tree, Wissler suggested, from infancy to old age, "at the stage of near-death or death, we can still honor Farrand's spirit by taking down the dead trees and planting new ones, so this is really an exciting moment for us because it's an issue that we're going to have to face ultimately with the whole entrance drive."

The surviving "sentry" tree is living on borrowed time, she said, since a major limb fell within the past several weeks in a windstorm, and on Monday, a second limb was removed to lighten the load on the fully leafed tree. "It's low-risk right now from a safety standpoint, but we have a very difficult decision to make because these were a pair." A pair of newly planted saplings in the same spot, whether or not they are sugar maples, will mate for life, in a sense, requiring the removal of the huge, 200-year tree.

"A dead or fallen tree is simply an altered state of a live tree, and there's hundreds of years of contribution it can make to the earth," Wissler said, citing a published statement in 1992 by forest ecologist Chris Maser.

Wissler gathered multiple "second opinions" from experts like Lee Buttala, who chairs the Historic Landscape Committee of the American Public Garden Association near Philadelphia. He has a home in the Ashley Falls section of Sheffield.

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"The hardest thing is that we often don't think of trees and plants as having a natural lifespan," he said. "None of us like to see a tree come down, but it's a reasonable approach because of public safety, which is certainly the first concern."

Buttala emphasized that he was "so impressed by Susan's questioning, examination and rumination on the best thing to do. It shows how seriously she's dedicated to maintaining the landscape and honoring the garden tradition. It's testimony to how seriously she treats the landscape."

Despite the difficulty of pronouncing a death sentence for an aged, infirm sentry maple, Wissler agreed that Edith Wharton would have approved of the decision.

"One thing we know about Wharton is that she was constantly moving forward," said Rebecka McDougall, communications and community engagement director at The Mount.

Farrand, the landscape designer for Wharton, was known for special attention to detail, prioritizing landscape and paint maintenance. Other career highlights include garden design for Mrs. Woodrow Wilson at the White House in 1913, Dumbarton Oaks, an historic estate in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden on Mount Desert Island, Maine.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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