When Trees Fall
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, May 7, 2006
They were two perfectly healthy, lush, high-rising maples that pre-dated our insignificant subdivision by forty or fifty years. They were two high-rises of habitats for the birds and bugs, moths and lizards, spiders, squirrels, beetles, bees, planthoppers, grasshoppers, zorapterans and moth-gazers that made them their home or their lay-over, their rest stop, their tourist dives, their summer rentals. Like all trees they only gave of themselves and took nothing in return unless it was a good rain, a bracing wind, a sheltering sky. They rose there for seventy, eighty, maybe ninety years, the first half of their life encumbered only by the pine-heavy forest around them, the second half by the flattening of developers, the asphalt of the cul-de-sac, the walls and roofs of the houses around it, ours included, and the comings and goings of owners and renters by the dozen every decade, this being Florida, land of transience and exploits: People come, take advantage, then either die or move on to bigger square footage after remaking their surroundings in their Sears-comforts’ image which, more often than not, deploys and destroys more than it preserves. There are generous exceptions. William Bartram’s disciples live here, too. But even two million exceptions would be overwhelmed by the other thirteen (and the seven thousand who move in every day), to whom environmental scruples have the sympathy of roadkill.
We could see the maples from our living room, though not as well as they could see us, and especially since a lightning storm, maybe a year or two before our arrival, felled what had been a thick-set pine right in the middle of our yard. Every day when my son and I play outside, he likes to jump off the barely rising stump that’s still there (thank heavens), and I jump off with him, regretting every time the tree I never knew. For the last several years my wife Cheryl would sit mornings at the window, T.S. Eliot style but without the rattle of breakfast plates or the damp souls of housemaids and twisted faces (we are in desertic suburbia, remember), taking from the view what green and serenity it gave, what shelter our trees all around provided, those two maple twins most of all because they were in her direct line of sight. They didn’t speak. But their eloquence beckoned all the same. It made sitting there as much a luxury as a rest.
The two rose right next to our neighbors’ house, protecting almost half its roof surface from sunshine almost all day, but most of all giving the entire cul-de-sac a hint of the ancestral, of what once was here everywhere, and of how grateful we should be for what has been preserved, however little of it has been. “From them comes silence and awe,” Steinbeck wrote of California’s redwoods. But we feel this awe in the presence of mere commoners like maple and birch trees, too. We felt it whenever we looked out the window, if we took the time to feel it rather than take our trees’ presence for granted. How simple it is to assume, like life itself, that a tree’s existence is permanent, that its trunk is ruggedness and resilience incarnate, its roots too deeply invested in an acreage of soil all around to ever possibly do more than stretch further, and above ground to grow more lush. We feel that way about one’s neighborhood trees especially: We couldn’t possibly imagine them gone, not one of them, not now, not years from now. No matter their age or their weathered conditions, they look too commanding and sure of their place to give an inch to anything short of a life-force as greening and giving. Nothing short of the cataclysmic, it seems, can harm them. We depend on them for that reason. Trees are as tangible an approximation of eternity as we have. And if not eternity, then at least survival.
It isn’t even a spiritual matter, though there is that. It’s instinct. Trees are the first thing the eye takes in during storms, gauging their strengths against the gale, marveling at their ability to stand up to it all, praying (for our sake) that they do, because if they don’t, well… When we return from a hurricane evacuation, it’s the trees we look for first—if they’re still here, if they’ve protected more than they’ve buckled.
Ours usually protected. It was the other streets’ trees that fell. Not ours. But there’s always one blight they can’t protect against. It is pitifully anti-cataclysmic.
Yesterday, our neighbor took a chainsaw to both maples. They crashed within an hour of each other. The chainsaws dismembering them were still at it this afternoon. There’s nothing left of the trees but two shard-spiked stumps standing about two or three feet high (the tree-smashing was an amateur’s job that had all the makings of accidents and other sorts of limbs being smashed up, though somehow only the trees weren’t spared). We live in a town where cutting down trees is against the law except for a certain kind of tree, and only in certain circumstances, and only with permission from the city. I don’t know if they got permission or not. They probably did. Even so, what difference would it make? The trees are gone, the purpose for their destruction almost as clobbering as the smashing itself: the trees were in the way of a planned vast and circular concrete driveway that will take out yet more green in the weeks ahead (the property is turning into an homage to cement). Cheryl doesn’t understand it. I don’t understand it. The neighbor on the other side of us, with whom conversations are usually difficult except in the most sorrowful circumstances, like yesterday, doesn’t understand it. But this is what people assume they have every right to do when they invoke property rights, even though, as Cheryl pointed out (thinking of her mornings at the window), a tree is not something any one of us owns. It belongs to everyone who can see it. It is part of a larger property none of us owns singly, and none of us should ever presume to control.
I realize that this is all eco-romantic claptrap. At least it is so from the perspective of the development-driven, the private-property driven, the stamp-your-ground-driven. But these trees weren’t preventing any of these rights from blooming every which way, if only a few inches’ adjustments had been considered. A threat during hurricanes? Please. The cul-de-sac is more vulnerable for lack of them now. Even those two maples formed a shelter-belt that served a purpose, indiscernible as it was to subtleties honed to the decibels of chainsaws. Those maples weren’t hurting anything. They were a bigger pleasure, a bigger benefit, a bigger service than our neighbors will ever know. But yes, they were in the way. And now they’re not anymore. Absent their canopy, the sky above them is now itself unsheltered.