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Tree's a crowd



I have been sick with anger and sorrow all week.

For days, I have listened to the rip of chain saws and the snagging clatter of a large piece of heavy machinery with "Whisper Chipper" emblazoned on its side. The workmen's sharp whistles and barking shouts have punched their way through the din, warning of limbs about to rattle down in a swoon of green leaves and fractured branches, directing the loop and pull of ropes tied around saws, the loading of severed limbs and trunks.

Our neighbors, a couple in their early thirties, have seen fit to take down not one, but two oak trees that had been in their back yard. A professional gardener friend, when told the size of the trunks, estimates that the willow oak had been there 85 years or more. The other, probably a white oak, a couple of hundred. (The neighbors have been there for about two.) The willow oak would have been around only another 50 or 75 years, just long enough for our neighbors' grand- or great-grandchildren to take care of, to make the sad decision that, indeed, the majestic tree had grown ill, old, needed to be safely taken down and carted away. The white oak, however, could easily have gone on for another 200 years. A tree in the middle of its characteristically long life.

I look at my yard with its small stand of lovely, whispery pines, one shaggy mess of a sycamore, and a half-dozen sweet gums that I wish the Tree Fairy would replace in the night with maples or beeches or oaks or anything but sweet gums. ("Garbage trees" our gardener friend calls them; "We cut them down and used them for landfill on the farm," my husband says.) I walk down the drive and stare across at the huge, blank, sunny rectangle that is now our neighbors' yard. And I want to call a priest. I'm not even Catholic, but I feel like the Catholics would know what to do--that this trapped anguish I'm feeling might find release, given enough rituals and robes and incense and Latin and sprinkled, blessed water.

Trooping over to the neighbors' yard, uninvited, to conduct a funeral is probably a better idea than doing wheelies on their front lawn, which is the only other gesture I've thought of, so far, that might make me feel better. I don't think the feeling would last, though, and I'm too chicken about getting caught.

I did go over yesterday, just to stare in disbelief at the broad, flat surface of the stumps. They are nearly flush with the ground, smooth and big around as bistro tables; they are the buttery ivory color of sliced, homemade bread. Just as the lump in my throat threatened to crack into tears, the neighbors' friendly dog skipped her way over and patted my shins with her paws. I hadn't seen her. They have taken away all her shade, and so she'd been hanging out under the steps or one of the cars, staying cool. I scooped her into my arms, let her give me a few wet kisses, then put her down and walked back home.

I wish there were some municipal requirement for a neighborhood vote on the wanton destruction of centuries-old trees, but there isn't, and maybe shouldn't be, I honestly don't know. The yard is theirs, to landscape how they like.

My husband's philosophy is this: when you buy a lot with trees like that, you may own the lot, but you don't own the trees--you have been honored with the responsibility of their stewardship. But the please-yourself-and-every-other-consideration-be-damned style of American individualism is thriving these days, from right here in Durham all the way to the Bush White House. For my part, with so many builders willing to bulldoze every living twig before framing a single house in a new subdivision, I can only wonder: If they'd wanted a lot with no trees, why not just buy a house on one?

Which leads, of course, to the question I've been wailing all week: Why? Why would anyone take a chain saw to such grand beauty?

When I wail the question at my husband, he grows silent, thinks a moment, and says, "I bet they're going to dig a pool."

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