The Mortal Tree

The sugar maple tree across the street from my home has disappeared. In its place is a stump, sans limbs and leaves, just a block of wood standing stupidly on the ground, like a teen-ager loitering around a street corner without any good reason.

City streets are dangerous places for trees. I know, because the man whose job it was to tear this 60-year-old tree down told me so. I know, because I have many times seen trees with large orange Xs on them, marked for death.

Death came to the sugar maple tree across the street last week. It took about four hours and two men to kill it. Using a crane, they chopped up the thick trunk in blocks, and after they were gone, there were only blocks of wood left on the sidewalk. A few hours later, even the wood was gone as residents hauled it away, clearing the sidewalk the way wild animals strip a carcass clean. Even in death, trees serve a purpose.

The man whose job it was to direct the chopping of the tree looked unhappy. So often, he said, people ask him to tear down beautiful, ancient oak trees. In his own back yard, he has only a silver maple tree, the man said. So it is hard for him to believe that people could tear down a perfectly good tree as effortlessly as a sneeze.

The tree across the street from me was sick, the man said. Disease had made its way onto its trunk. It was also tilting dangerously in one direction, like an old woman with a stoop. These are all rational, perfectly sensible reasons for tearing a tree down. But that didn't make the sadness of destruction any more bearable.

Cities are dangerous places for trees, the man said. He pointed to the telephone and electric wires that ran like black rainbows over the street. Tree-tops have to be cut continually to prevent them from making contact with these wires, he explained. Branches have to be trimmed to keep them from touching the wires. All this cutting creates lopsided trees. All this chopping weakens the trees by exposing them to sun-burn, the man said.

He next eyed the sidewalks. Each time a sidewalk is put in the feeder roots that spread far and wide have to be cut, the man said. This further weakens the tree. Trees also put up with other indignities, he said, pulling out a nail from the trunk of one.

When they tore down the sugar maple they found four baby squirrels living in the trunk, the man said. The mother, scared by all the noise, had run away. When that happens, the tree man calls somebody who raises them until they are old enough to fend for themselves.

The man eyed the hole the baby squirrels had been living in, and his eyes looked sad and thoughtful for a minute. Then, he looked away.

John Steinbeck wondered years ago why progress always looks so much like destruction. I like having sidewalks where I live. I'm addicted to the telephone, and electricity is as much a part of my life as breathing.

But I also wish there was some way for me and the baby squirrels and the trees to peacefully co-exist. I wonder why my material comforts always seem to be at the expense of other living things.

Perhaps I was merely in a glum mood that day, but the tree stump looked like an accusing finger all day. The finger pointed everywhere, from the apocalyptic, burning oil fields of Kuwait to the depleting rain forests of Brazil.

Pretty soon, the city will come and uproot even the stump. Then my guilt too will be torn away from me. And I will go about my business and use my telephone and thank God for sidewalks.

And I will never think about the baby squirrels again.

Akron Beacon Journal
Monday, September 9, 1991