By Rebecca D. Martin "There was a great tree---a huge poplar with vast limbs---visible through my window even as I lay in bed. I loved it, and was anxious about it. It had been savagely mutilated some years before, but had gallantly grown new limbs - though of course not with the unblemished grace of its former natural self; and now a foolish neighbour was agitating to have it felled." ~J.R.R. Tolkien, Collected Letters
The big front yard maple finally came down today. All the branches had been taken off last November. In absence of any friends who could manage the substantial trunk with a mere chain saw, the official tree men returned today and took that away, too.
The baby and I watched through the gable window as the two fellows alternated at the base: chain sawing, axing, tossing wedges of wood aside. Saw, axe, toss. I expected this to go on all around the perimeter of the tree for the next hour, slow but sure. But just as the baby was losing interest in favor of the cord pull on the window blind, the unexpected happened. The entire, enormous ten foot trunk creaked and groaned. The men did some circling and pushing. Then a sharp crack, and 72 years-worth of sprouting, spreading, anchoring, and reaching fell into the road with a shuddering thump that set our dog a-barking.
Last fall, I'd mourned as the tree branches came down: no more green leaves dancing at the upstairs window; that lovely play of sunlight and shadow shifting across the downstairs living room---gone. Not to mention the temperature protection during our unairconditioned summers. The loss felt inordinately tragic, both physically and emotionally. But I thought all my sorrow had gone with the limbs. The stripped-down body left standing in the yard was merely a sad reminder, not to mention an eyesore---a ten foot high one. I was more than ready for it to go.
Imagine my surprise at the tears that sprang up this morning as the tree trunk fell, so suddenly, so heavily, down. It seemed so, so . . . irreverent. It seemed wrong. There lay the tree, bottom-up, all its striated glory exposed for the world to see. Suddenly, the blossoming circles amassed over three quarters of a century, the grey bark running its length in stripes and curves, were a surpassing beauty. The tree men seemed not to notice. They swung their axes and tossed the tree in bits and pieces into the back of their flatbed. They took a break and lit cigarettes. For them, this was any day, any tree, any job.
J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, "I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals." This morning, as the tree pitched over, I could hear the clanging and banging of Saruman's machinery, as it was so explicitly interpreted in the movies, and the ground-shaking thud at each felled tree. The neighbor who frowned and made a wide berth around our yard this morning on her daily dog walk seemed to channel Tolkien's disappointment at me. "Those trees were my friends!" Darn that movie.
Still, I knew it was just a tree. I know it is just a tree. And it was dying, after all. These Norway Maples were planted when our three neighborhood streets were first developed, back in the 1940’s, and none of the trees are going to last much longer. Each yard got two maple trees, in fact, and a good third of them have come down already. More than half of the ones left are dying. Windblown and ice-laden limbs fall into the streets where cars park and children on bikes race by. The resident tree expert says that, actually, there's only one healthy maple left, back in a corner lot. He speculates about environmental incompatibility. Others have suggested bugs or disease. Whatever the root cause, our particular tree was sick, and it was time for it to go.
But there's something to be said for putting in a lifetime’s work toward such a strong and quiet beauty. It doesn't seem like something so long-lived should go as easily as this fifteen minutes of sawing and chopping have done. It seems, for a moment, that the tree should get something better than a cigarette break in memorium.
But really, there is nothing that needs be done for the tree, or that could be done, except what we did. Instead, I know what I will do. As I watched this morning, I resolved to plant another. We'll do our research this time. We've been told something called the Black Oak does well in these parts. I also have a particular soft spot for Dogwoods. Yes, we'll start another tree in this one’s place, and make our own contribution to this tiny patch of land and its future, and to the neighborhood it belongs to.
And then we'll get on with our day. With all respect to the dog-walking neighbor, and to Tolkien, and to my own sappy emotions, it was only a tree, after all. And it was ready to go.