Felled silver maple crushes a car but keeps its silver lining

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John Daley/CPR New
A large limb from a silver maple in Denver came down in a wind storm at the end of September, a day when the gusts topped out at 50 mph. It damaged cars on the street in Denver.

On one Saturday this September, my wife, Heidi, went hiking with friends in Silverthorne. She sent  me photos. The clouds are amazing, hovering above the mountains. The leaves are changing, they're a glowing golden hue. A little later, our friend Jill, who she’s hiking with, out of the blue sends a completely unrelated video of a car covered in green leaves. 

“I don't think we're going to be able to get that big one off anyway,” says one person.

The video, from her neighbor, shows the scene in front of her house. People are gathering and chattering. “You guys were outside?” asks another.

Thanks to one of those windy fall days where gusts are blowing up to 50 mph, big branches and broken twigs layer the street and parked cars. “Clearly, hit it and bounced off,” says a third.

I ran over to our friend's house and saw that this massive tree limb had come down on our brown Nissan Leaf. I know this will sound very public radio but it is an electric car.

There's debris on the roof, a broken window. The roof has caved in about a foot. The back door won’t open.

At this point, I have no idea what to do. But it seems like there has to be a way to get something positive out of it. I called tree expert Patricia Smith and she came to look.

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Peter Cozens uses a chainsaw to remove branches from a tree that came down in the street during a wind storm this fall in Denver.

“Well, wowza, it's typical of silver maples around Denver,” she said.

Smith knows a lot about the city’s trees. Many of this variety were planted a century ago.

“So this particular branch, it's one of the main branches of the tree, and it's all the way across the street. It has hit two cars. One most definitely looks like it got totaled because of the crushed roof,” she said. 

I tell her the one with the crushed roof is my car.  

Like a lot of us, trees weaken with age, and in heavy wind or snow, they come down.

“These trees love to collapse because they just don't hold the weight when they get a certain age and size,” Smithsaid.

But she and her husband, Peter Cozens, know what to do in these situations.

Cozens and Smith have a wood turning business, called The Shape of Wood. They salvage wood from neighborhood trees, all over town. The tree limb that came down on my poor little Leaf was quite big, maybe 30 feet tall and several tons. 

Cozens went at it with the chainsaw, carefully slicing the tree into pieces, gingerly cutting it so it rolls off the car. Chips of wood were flying. Soon you can see the trouble. 

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Peter Cozens works in the woodshop at his home.

“So here in the center where it's really dark, that's rot. It's kind of a dry rot where water leaks down the center and then just rots out the wood,” said Cozens. 

In places, the rot has just eaten away at the inside of the tree. Bugs dart out of holes. 

“This branch there is holding this whole thing up. So when I cut this branch, it's all going to come down,” Cozens said.

After a while Cozens removed the limb off the car and chopped the tree up into large chunks. He said he’s looking for solid pieces roughly 12 to 18 inches in diameter “that's not punky or rotten. Where the ants haven't set up home.”

A few weeks later, I met Peter and Patricia at their home. In the back, there’s a woodshop. 

“Welcome John, you’ve got the wood pile here.”

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Blocks of wood are piled and scattered around the yard. In the shed, there’s saws and a lathe and all kinds of carving tools. Cozens starts describing various samples.

“So this is red cedar. It's uncommon. And there's a lady over on Monaco Parkway who took a tree down and a friend told us about it,” said Cozens, who is a construction manager in his day job.

There’s wood from an ash on Montview, wood from Park Hill, Hilltop, Berthoud and part of the remains of a tree from a family who lost their home in the Marshall Fire. “They found out about how we salvage trees and wanted Peter to make a bowl out of that, whatever surviving pieces of the sugar maple there were,” said Smith, who is a marketing and communications consultant.

A common vein is that people form a deep, lasting bond with their trees. “They take down their beloved tree in a front yard and they consider it kind of part of their family,” said Smith. “It's their family tree. Bad pun.”

Cozens disagreed.  “That was a good pun.”

Over the course of a couple of visits, Smith and Cozens show me how it’s done. A mound of wood is cut down to the size it can fit on a lathe. Then Cozens uses metal tools, gouges and scrapers with names like skew chisel. 

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Occasionally, there is blood.

“Dislocated some fingers. Cut my hand. Sliced my fingers on the table saw,” said Cozens. “Yeah, we've got the route down to Rose Medical Center. Down.” 

But barring ER visits, Cozens, behind a safety mask, carves the wood down, as the lathe rapidly spins, through repeated cuts, with vast volumes of sawdust streaming, into a bowl shape.

He applies wax. It’s put in a kiln to dry out the moisture and then with some sanding and polishing, the final product is ready for show and sale and craft fairs and art festivals. 

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“This is the finished product, honey locusts, maple, cedar, ash,” Cozens said, showing off a table of wooden objects: a baseball bat, a baby’s rattle and many bowls, each its own color. 

“This is from your tree, your maple tree,” he said.  It is beautiful. “Really it’s a gorgeous piece of wood.”

This one has a golden yellow shade with rings of darker brown lines.  Some have waves and variations, all have some personal connection.

“I think the that more science discovers about how trees are and forests are and how trees are connected,” Smith said, “it really seems like a very natural and spiritual thing for us to understand that a tree does have a presence more than just being a piece of wood

And like so many pieces of human-carved wood, there’s a story. This one you could call:  How a tree destroyed a Leaf and became a bowl.

Oh, and the car was indeed totaled.

John Daley/CPR News
Peter Cozens holds up a pair of bowls made from the wood of the silver maple that came down on the Nissan Leaf this fall in Denver. Eight bowls were carved from that tree.