I spent most of a morning this week hiding out in a coffee shop. I should have been resting in bed or doing housework or any of a very long list of pressing tasks. Instead I read a little and I wrote a little, and I sipped my coffee slowly and picked sorrowfully at the bowl of fruit I had ordered but didn’t really want.
I was hiding out. Chainsaw-wielding men with an oversized crane had arrived to massacre a stately granddaddy willow oak that was doomed by the new neighbor’s house plans. The construction is well underway, the little old cinder block house that had been there disappeared in less than a day, and my festive backyard now has a lovely view of a construction site, complete with porta-potty. (I need to move.)
That tree has been a pal to us since we first moved here. It was rather shocking to come from a forty-acre spread to this little place with its postage stamp yard, but that old oak tree eased the pain. It was home to much of the urban wildlife that we encouraged heartily in those first years when the children were smaller. Our yard was a certified wildlife habitat, complete with the birdhouse Little Man built at his seventh birthday party which was nailed high up in the old tree, a bird bath, and feeders of many types. We also had squirrels—a lot of them. They were amusing to watch, but pesky with regard to those bird feeders and I wanted to chase them off. We used cayenne (which they didn’t seem to mind). We tried many devices and tricks to foil their ability to climb into the trees or onto the feeders. Finally I resorted to a sling shot. (I heard you gasp. Don’t worry, I used paint balls.) I didn’t actually want to hurt the fluffy-tailed rodents, I just wanted them to let my bird feeders be. (It did occur to me later that it wouldn’t have been very nice if someone had been hanging around my favorite frozen sweet-treat shop waiting to sting me with exploding color pellets.) I had good aim, too, because I practiced with the tree. (I only missed and hit the neighbor’s house once. Fortunately he was very nice and mildly amused by the crazy redhead who came sneaking out her back door, slingshot in hand, rubber taut, ready to launch a bead and decorate a neighborhood squirrel. It became a running joke that multicolored spots were all the rage among the squirrel population in our neighborhood, that every bushy-tailed rodent in the ‘hood seemed to be popping by to get one. (I hope you are picturing a herd of spotted squirrels hopping around the ‘burbs, because that is exactly how it was; well, almost.)
I’ve never been a big fan of chainsaws, though I’ll admit to rather enjoying handling a Sawzall last weekend while cutting some fallen oak branches to burnable lengths. I get the appeal, even if I have always found the sound of a chainsaw unnerving.
In the early years, Ex and I lived in what I have often called a whiskey shack on the banks of a lazy river, and I knew the sound of chainsaws. It was a beautiful area, but in a flood plane such that there were rules about subdivisions. I called the man who owned the tract of land—Rock Manly, or simply ‘the Laird.’ He owned probably a hundred acres and to skirt the rules, he sold hundred-year leases on parcels of land to those interested in building there. Rock Manly liked his chainsaws. He liked any equipment that was loud and destructive. Rock Manly and his chainsaw and his mean dogs lived up the road a piece, and they were the most unpleasant feature of the otherwise mostly idyllic little settlement. I couldn’t help thinking about them as I fidgeted in the coffee shop.
When I finally returned late in the day, the chainsaws and the tree were gone. Only an everywhere dusting of sawdust and the fat stump remained. I brought Little Man home from school and when he saw it, he began to cry. Then he began to rant. You would have thought he was The Lorax. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have read that story with such gusto at every request when he was younger.)
He came in to have a snack and it began to rain. We went to the porch to watch the downpour and I saw wonder in his face as I do so often. Nine is a magical age. “You can go get your raincoat and boots and go out in it if you like,” I said, “as long as it isn’t thundering.” He got his blue slicker, but couldn’t find the boots so he wore mine. They were too big and had a wedge heel, but he wasn’t discouraged. He splashed through puddles on the sidewalk and ran through the wet yard. He noticed the way the other trees were wet on one side and not the other. The rain let up and he walked under low hanging branches and whacked them to bring the water down on his head. He looked at the way the drops beaded. He brought me a leaf. It was curled, but still green and the beads of water sparkled on it, jewel-like.
It led us back to the tree, to examine the stump and count the rings, from the small center to the thick outer layers of bark, and to say goodbye. The stump revealed a line of rot at the tree’s center and several splits that paralleled it. It seemed important to believe that the arborist had probably been right; the tree wasn’t fantastically healthy and the construction would weaken it such that it was likely to die and fall on the house. Little man held a handful of damp sawdust and let it slip through his fingers like grains of sand, marking the passing of a precious moment. I cried.