07 November 2011

Hatchet, ax and saw

The light has changed. Time has changed.

The shadows lengthen early; at 1:30, it looks more like late afternoon, and the air is crisp and bright after the rain. Light sparkles and cracks. "Hectic" is the word that always comes to mind.

The translucent wings of some tiny creatures refract the light as they zig zag crazily through the golden air. Phoebe chases after them, swooping and darting, and it's quiet enough that I can hear her tiny beak snap as it closes on each hapless insect. She and her mate peep and make happy noises while they flit about in hot pursuit of dinner.

Small death giving small life. The food chain.

Last week was nuts.

Our lot is large. The house is not large, but adequate. So there's a lot of square footage on which there is no house. A good deal of it is occupied by trees.

Really freaking huge trees. A forty-foot pine. Six thirty-foot ficus. A twenty-foot olive with a three-foot diameter trunk. An enormous magnolia. A tall, skinny eucalyptus. And bit players like orange, lemon, kaffir lime, tangelo and purple plum. Not to mention a multi-trunked crepe myrtle.

(There used to be more trees. We pulled out 20 dead fruit trees the summer after we moved in. Of course, we hadn't known they were dead, but we bought the house in the winter. Let that be a lesson to you.)

Tree-trimming is a yearly event, and because the pine needs to be done in cold weather, the crew is usually out here this time of year. Back when we bought the place, I hired an arborist--the only position I've ever thought of as household staff--to help me keep up with this situation.

The arborist and I talked at the end of September, and the office called to schedule the work. The day came, and I waited. And waited. Finally, the office called to tell me there'd be a double crew showing up at 11. And they did. And they started by eating their lunch.

The foreman and I talked. The arborist showed up and we talked. The guys got to work. More talk. More work.

I will admit that tree trimming day is the one day of the year where I'm pretty much in a state of non-stop panic. I know these guys are trained. Well-insured. But they are hanging a huge distance off the ground from my tree. Swinging power tools back and forth. The electrical lines run back there. Really, it's enough to give me a heart attack.

(Yes, too many years of disaster work. Also, when you read of some of the accidents that happen...)

Then it was getting close to the end of the day, and suddenly, the trucks were gone and there were ladders on the ground and ropes hanging from the tree. They were nowhere near being finished.

The next day, the Santa Ana winds kicked up. "It's too dangerous," said the arborist.

"I do not want them in my trees when the wind is blowing," I said with great feeling.

They returned Thursday. Branches and limbs fell and were roped down. The chipper started up four different times. The street looked as though I'd removed an entire forest.

I'd made an executive decision over the summer to remove the olive tree. I've got a half formed plan to build an extra room off that side of the house, but more, I need light for the vegetable garden. When I told the arborist to put its removal on the estimate, he groaned a little with anguish.

"I understand, though," he said.

I felt guilty, I admit. My back garden has become home to a large number of different birds, and I try to maintain a good balance to keep it tidy, but natural. The olive was a pretty and mature tree, albeit a messy one.

I couldn't watch last week when they cut it down. When I finally looked, they'd just cut away the last hunk of trunk. The trimmer saw me looking through the window and he gestured to the stump. I nodded.

When they'd cleared enough away, I went out to look and I walked over to the trunk, so much larger in death than it had ever seemed in life. It was then that I saw the truth, the cancer growing in the tree's heartwood, a six-inch diameter ring of wet rot that had devoured the inner portion of part of the trunk. It had already taken hold in another portion of the trunk as well. The tree probably wouldn't have lasted another two years.

The day was ending and the foreman told me they'd be back another day to grind the stump.

The house is filled with light, and the trees that remain are lifted and tidier, raising their branches to the heavens. But I look out the window and there is a hole in the vista, a huge new patch of sky that replaces the grey green leaves and gnarled branches of the olive. The stump still remains, a silent reproach.

Even knowing it was diseased, not long for this world, I am sad at the loss of the tree. A little death, perhaps, but one that may give larger life come the spring.

Go listen to some good music: "The Trees" from the album Hemispheres by Rush.

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