You Know You’re Old When You’ve Outlived the Trees You Planted

The chainsaw massacre was about to begin when the normally docile young woman intervened. Later, she described the episode during our Zoom call. For years she and her roommate had been ideal tenants, quiet, tidy, paying their rent on time. But when she spotted the crew preparing to remove a stately tree in front of their house, she vehemently protested to her landlord. A conference with arborist, crew and others ensued. The tree survived. Neighbors quietly praised her intervention, admitting they’d been reluctant to get involved. 

“This was so unlike me,” she told her Zoom audience. The chat box filled with congratulatory notes and emoji applause. My emotions were mixed. Trees tend to live a long time and deservedly so, for all the benefits they offer. Yet just like us, trees have a life cycle, an inevitable end.

 I once was that young woman, what the cynical call a “tree hugger.” A love for trees is still deeply rooted in my heart. No pun there; a simple truth. I also know — even without seeing this particular  tree — that its reprieve is temporary. The USDA says urban trees tend to live only twenty-eight years at most — about twenty percent of a normal tree life span. Their congested environment makes them susceptible to pests, disease, inadequate care, inappropriate placement, improper planting, asphalt generated heat, etc., etc.

Living where I do, in a rural, desert-like shrub steppe environment, I’ve been a rabid defender of trees. While I was still editing the local newspaper, the city superintendent knew me well enough to call in advance whenever a tree had to be removed from the public domain. He’d explain the detection of disease and consequent threat to human health should the tree keel over on its own or topple in a windstorm. 

My town boasts a luxurious canopy of green, none of it native, and has been officially declared a “Tree City U.S.A.” by the Arbor Day Foundation. This small urban forest is a legacy of pioneer women, who a century or more ago planted the first deciduous trees, hauling water in buckets to nurture them in this arid country. More recently, volunteers tore up sidewalks to provide irrigation for trees along Main Street.

I’ve planted my share of trees over the years. I remember how eager I was the day we planted red maples in the front yard — anxious for them to grow and give luxurious shade. What I hadn’t figured on was that I’d be aging right along with those trees.

Once, my husband and I made an impulse buy in support of a newly established nursery. We brought home the tiny pine and scouted the yard for a place to plant it. While I looked around for available open space in the lawn, my wiser husband looked upward. He nixed my first choice because eventually the tree would get tangled in wires. Pines generally live at least fifty and often hundreds of years. This one gave us three beautiful decades before it became mortally diseased. 

Even as I mourned, I marveled at the skill of the sawyer who limb by limb denuded the tree and finally sawed off the naked trunk. He was, I hate to admit, graceful.

“I make it look easy, don’t I,” he boasted with a grin. I witnessed the deafening process as tree limbs and trunk were chopped into chips that would become mulch that would eventually fade back into Mother Earth. All is temporary, yet circular.

My diseased pine on his way back to Mother Earth

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