Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Goodbye Old Tree

Last week, five men showed up on our property at 8 a.m. and proceeded to cut down a tree. Not just any tree, but a 100+ foot, seventy-year-old big leaf maple. A tree that towered over me as a child, and a tree that sheltered the front of our house as an adult. A tree that bursts into green in the spring, and glows a vibrant yellow in the fall. A tree that sheds all of its leaves in November, leaves that we are still often raking into the new year. A tree that has grown humongous roots and been circled for decades by flowers: tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, bluebells, and forget-me-nots. A fairy ring, Els used to call it, Els who planted most of those flowers during the forty years that she lived here. I have only lived here for four. But as a young child, I lived next door for ten.

When I was young, Frank used to climb up in the tree himself to take out the dead limbs. I remember my parents talking about it, and Els being nervous. He took out two of the main limbs himself when they were dying, which left two massive remaining ones-- still plenty of tree. In recent years, I had noticed that the leaves on one side of the tree looked smaller- a sign of decay. There was also a smaller dead limb in the middle—“smaller”, yet still large enough that it would likely be fatal if it fell on your head. Maple is hard wood.

This year, we finally decided that we needed to get serious and do something about the tree. Our neighbors had politely enquired about its safety shortly after one of our big cedars came down one day into their backyard, missing their house by a few feet. Root rot. We hadn’t a clue.

We got several bids and no one could tell us anything conclusive without expensive testing, but everyone agreed that the maple was in its “twilight years”, and showing signs of decay. Some suggested erecting a cable that would bind together the two main limbs and prevent “catastrophic failure”, but another said that this would not guarantee that the tree would not fall. Either onto our house, onto the neighbor’s house, into the street and power lines, or- worst case scenario-- onto a person. Even if a cable could buy us a few more years or at most another decade of enjoying the tree, it was still on its way out. So we decided to shell out the big bucks and have it removed as recommended.

I thought the tree guys would be here all day; that’s what I’d been told, and even that had seemed fast to me. But when they got to work by 8:15, I could tell it would go even faster. Our family of three stood by the window and watched as the arborist spun around on a rope, wielding the saw. Crash! Down came the first branches. Down, down, down. Before we knew it, he was already working on the main two trunks, sectioning off chunks that fell with loud booms. Meanwhile, four guys with orange hard hats scampered below, wielding their own chainsaws, pulling the smaller branches up the steps to be chipped, and leaving us a pile of rounds for firewood.

Cedar was mesmerized. We ate our oatmeal on the daybed, staring out the window. Down, down, down, came the tree. By 10:00, the whine of the chainsaws was starting to get to me so I decided to take Cedar out to get some groceries. Surely they would still be here when we got back. But when we drove home at just past eleven, the yard was silent. You could still smell the gas from the saws in the air and the ground was littered with a confetti of wood shavings. Otherwise, what was left was a giant stump, five feet in diameter, and a huge pile of wood for my husband to chop.

It felt… surreal. Less than three hours and the old tree was gone. Cedar and I stepped up onto the trunk, which now was the perfect platform to give some future speech or poetry reading from, or play king of the mountain. The sky above was open, which is nice since our property is otherwise surrounded by tall trees and shielded from sunlight. But I also felt a stirring of sadness. Something that grew steadily and slowly for decades was erased within minutes. Responsible as our choice to cut down the tree was, the speed at which it was removed still felt like an incursion.

Now, when you sit at the window seat, the ideal spot to read and stare out the window all day, you can be seen from the street. Part of the beauty of that perch was that you used to be totally hidden from view, looking out on a mossy green oasis of trees. And we could pretty much walk around naked in our house and not worry. Granted, we still mostly can. But in the grand scope of how little has changed on this property over the course of decades, saying goodbye to that maple is no small thing.

Thankfully, we have one more big towering maple in back. The two maples were probably planted at the same time, anchoring the house, to the south and the north. Raking their leaves in the fall is always a long, time-consuming process, and yet, I love those trees, and by extension, those leaves. I love looking up into their lush canopies, seeing the squirrels jump from limb to limb, and the baby flickers emerge in the spring. The maple in back is also in its twilight years, but it’s not yet showing any signs of decay. We can enjoy it a while longer.

Every fall when I rake the leaves from the maples, I think of Frank and how much time and energy he used to put into caring for this yard. I had come a few times to help Frank rake when he was weak from cancer, and he’d shown me his method of getting every last leaf, creating little piles, lifting them into the wheelbarrow with the help of the rake, and then stacking the compost pile in a tidy square, a few feet high, and only when the leaves were moist so they would properly decay. For the next couple years, I made sure I was as thorough as Frank had been about getting all of the leaves. It felt important. I instructed Matthew about how the compost pile should be shaped. Because that’s the way Frank did it, and he must have had a good reason.

Eventually, though, I let this protocol slide. Now, I am no longer as vigilant about getting all the leaves (especially those pesky little ones from the plum and apple trees), and I let Matthew dictate the shape of the compost pile. These days, we don’t have the time to be perfectionists about anything. It feels good enough if we manage to get the bulk of the leaves raked, and just hold the basics of this place together, not let it slide into a state of neglect. 

These days, I have also not had much time to write about Els, Frank and the cabin. Motherhood has consumed me, and any writing energy I have has gone towards addressing my present. But now, for the first time in months, I feel a melancholy stirring inside, sprouting from that same seed of gratitude that infused me after Frank passed away, and as I moved in and discovered him and Els’s artifacts during the months that followed. This tug of melancholy reminds me of how this legacy is still waiting within me, dormant yet pungent, waiting for me to return to the outline of chapters and words I laid down over two years ago. It reminds me of how the roots of the story of Matthew, Cedar and I, and our present life in this cedar cabin, extend so much deeper and farther than the in-your-face immersion in parenting that we have been swimming and breathing through, day by day. It excites me to think about delving into Els and Frank’s past again, to find passages in Els’s letters about planting seedlings that today tower over us, or passages in Frank’s letters that hint at visions of countries and ports that no longer exist, at least not like they did then.

Everything changes. The old generation can barely recognize the new. Trees have their cycles. The one you plant today, you likely will not get to enjoy when it is full-grown and towering. But your children will. Or someone else’s children. Everything has its story. And everything, in the end, will die.

Now, the stump looks ugly, bare and obtrusive. But my husband reminded me that this is the worst it will look. Next spring, the fairy ring of blossoms will come up again, and we will get to choose a new tree to plant in their midst.

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