The signs are up in the street in front of my house: No Parking on Thursday – Tree Work from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm. The guy who was putting the signs up yesterday morning didn’t seem to have a care in the world: “At least you won’t have to worry about storm damage anymore!” Either he had no clue my heart was breaking, or perhaps he has learned to put on a cheery demeanor to stave off the sadness that comes when something solid and timeless dies.
It’s not like I haven’t seen it coming. That tree has been on the boulevard in front of my house way before I moved in almost thirty years ago; it probably was planted around the same time that my house was built, in 1910. Lots of houses went up in this neighborhood then, and lots of trees were planted with them, growing tall and stately in the decades since. The abundance of century old trees lining the streets is part of what drew my husband and me to this inner city neighborhood in the first place, even though at the time it was a haven for drug dealers, on-the-fly fencing operations and back yard chop shops. The trees spoke of permanence amidst change, soaring twice as high as the two storey houses behind them and digging deep with spreading roots, claiming their indelible place in this urbanized world. And those of us drawn to that permanence reclaimed the neighborhood, driving back the corruption and being rewarded with seeing it thrive and grow and become prosperous again.
The trees, though – time has taken a toll on the trees. Many of the stately sentinels have succumbed to disease over the years. Some came down during storms, especially in August 2009, when a tornado touched down a few scant blocks from our house; many trees were lost that day. And a few simply rotted away: I remember walking my dog (Tasha, before the Mighty Belle), on a sunny spring morning with barely a breeze. We were heading home when further up the block there was a bizarre groaning noise, and then a huge cracking sound. In what felt like slow motion, a tree simply slid down itself and toppled over into the street. There had been no warning, no provocation. Luckily the only damage was to a parked car which got squashed, but traffic was tied up for hours due to the roadway being totally blocked by the massive trunk. Later, once the city had removed the wreckage, it was amazing to peer into the hollowed out stump left behind, and to realize just how fragile the tree had become; from its outward appearance, it was as hale and hearty as ever. It had been the largest tree on the block (almost larger than the span of my outstretched arm); now that distinction belonged to our tree, yet even then we knew it was only a matter of time before ours would also meet its end.
You see, over a decade ago our tree was hit by lightning, bringing the top half of one of the two main forks crashing to the ground. (That was a mighty scary storm, let me tell you!) The bolt left a deep, ragged wound behind; half the canopy-bearing branches had been blasted off. I was afraid we were going to lose the whole tree then, but the city came out and cut back the jagged fork, leaving the other half of the tree untouched. They warned us then that the tree would be vulnerable to the elements, and especially to rot in its very heartwood, but that it surely had quite a few good years left to it yet. That made me very happy.
Because, well, this tree gives us shade in the summer. It cools our house, and makes the stifling, humid heat of July and August bearable. It keeps our utility bills down, because even on the hottest of days, we’re able to use our in-window air conditioners sparingly: once the house is cooled down, the shade from the tree helps to keep it from heating up again. And it’s beautiful, with its green, leafy canopy quivering in the breeze or dancing in the wind. It has harbored a whole world of wildlife right outside our front door: squirrels and cardinals, sparrows and robins, sure, but also woodpeckers and nuthatches and cedar waxwings, kinglets and jays, chipmunks, crows, an occasional raccoon, sometimes even an owl or a hawk. For two years we had a pair of nesting kestrels right there in the tree, and oh, my, but that was a wonder to behold. How many mornings have I spent out on the front porch, sipping coffee or lemonade, reading or writing or simply watching the neighborhood ebb and flow? Countless mornings, countless glorious hours. The porch will still be there once the tree is gone, yes, but it is the dancing, dappled shade of that magnificent tree that makes the mornings gracious, that gives the light and the breeze a grace, a preciousness lost in mere sunshine alone.
But even I know that it’s time for the tree to come down. Early in the spring, it dropped two large branches, with little warning other than a crack and a crash. Luckily these incidents only incurred the most minor of damage (to our fence), but it’s only a matter of time before luck runs out. Our tree is rotting from the lightning scar to its very heartwood. The leaves struggled to unfurl this spring, and the ones that did were crimped and small. The poor tree is dying.
Last April, after the city had carted away the second huge branch to drop, an arborist came and placed the dreaded orange X on our tree’s ragged trunk. We talked for a while, and he pointed out indications of stress, and spoke of structural integrity, of the menace from its weakening, of the liability its lack of soundness posed. He warned me that the city would probably come to take the tree in June, when its removal schedule kicked in.
I tried to put a positive spin on things. With no tree shading the entire front yard, I might finally be able to get some grass to grow. I could greatly expand the choice of flowers to plant in my porch garden – in the past, even “partial sun” was way too ambitious. And I’ve always wanted a cherry tree, but never had any place for it. Might that finally be possible? Or lilacs! We had some in the back yard when we moved in, but rogue grape vines choked them out. Lilacs would definitely be nice. Maybe even a few vegetables along the side fence – vegetables have always been out of question, front yard or back, with so much shade on our lot.
Still, I didn’t question when June came and went, and no city trucks showed up to cut down our tree. I was determined to enjoy whatever weeks were left of its shade, to revel in one last spring, one last summer with our beloved tree. When summer passed, and the leaves on the tree turned yellow and fell (not nearly as many as in years past, and not nearly as brilliant), I counted myself lucky that we had made it through another shared autumn, as well, lackluster as it might be. I tried to not give in to hope, that perhaps the one fork of the tree remaining was more sound than originally feared, that perhaps our tree had been taken off the removal schedule for a reason beyond lack of funds or time or manpower.
Then yesterday came the signs. The confirmation that tomorrow – today – would be our tree’s final day. When I took the Mighty Belle to the dog park this morning, we saw the city trucks out working; when we returned, they were cutting back trees and removing brush only a block away. It wouldn’t be long now.
A couple of hours ago, many of the trucks pulled up across from our house. They idled there for a little while, but when I looked out the window a few minutes later, they were gone. I assumed that it was too close to lunchtime to embark on a job that would take as much time as bringing down a tree as large as ours would entail; it would have to wait until after the union mandated break. At least that’s what I told myself. But in my heart, I want to believe that we’ve gotten yet another reprieve, for whatever reason, banal or magical. That it has been deemed not yet time to take this tree, that it’s still got some days or weeks or months left to spend with those of us who have grown to love its mere being, as ragged and tired as it is.
Maybe the miracle will hold. Maybe, just maybe it will be the street signs that get taken down, not the tree. Or, more realistically, it may be that the trucks will roll up a minute, an hour, a few hours from now and by sundown the landscape of my life will be adjusting to the new view out my front window. All I know for sure is that whichever case plays out this day, I will love that tree, and carry it in my heart for the rest of my life, along with all the other memories I keep that are more precious to me than gold.
~ Sharon Browning