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A Gratuitous Death

Killing an Oak Tree

by BRUCE JACKSON

My neighbor is killing his oak tree. It’s taking a long time.

He’s not doing it himself. It’s too big a job for him to do by himself, even if he knew how to do it, which he doesn’t. He’s hired a tree company to do it for him. Their two-man crew has been working since a little after dawn.

It’s a white oak, maybe ninety feet tall in the trunk, plumb-straight from the small branch at the top to the ground. It measures forty-three inches in diameter at eye-level, eleven feet and four inches in circumference. The two men cutting it down figure it’s about two hundred years old.

All day long I’ve been listening to the intermittent howl of the chain saw biting into wood, then the saw falling quiet for a while as the two-man crew lowers the severed branch or limb to the yellow steel truck parked below. Then the chainsaw man in the cherrypicker attaches his rope to another limb or branch, his saw starts up again, howls again as it bites into another piece of the tree, falls silent again, and that limb or branch in its turn is lowered to the truck. All day long. First the outer branches, then the limbs, then more branches and another limb.

Today the two men amputated all the branches and limbs on the side of the tree facing my house. Tomorrow they’ll start amputating all the branches and limbs on my neighbor’s side. I assume that will be slower work, since the branches and limbs on my side were over our adjoining driveways, while most of the branches on limbs on his side are over his roof.

Sometime later in the week, they’ll take down the trunk. Then there will be nothing except a stump in the ground, and maybe not even that.

When we have bad ice storms here–maybe once or twice a year–a few of the old trees in the park across the street go down. When they’re down and broken you can see where those trees are rotted and dying on the inside. It’s sad to see those big trees in the park suddenly nothing but litter, but you can always see the rot, see that they were ready to go.

My neighbor’s oak isn’t like that. The ends of the branches and limbs the two workers are loading into their truck are clear from center to bark all around, and the wounds on the trunk where the limbs had been attached are clear from edge to center as well. Left alone, this tree had maybe another hundred years.

My family has lived in our house for 27 years and we’ve had a relationship with that oak tree. It sprouts leaves later than the maples that are more common around here, and in fall it outlasts them. It shades our house all summer long. It’s not a static shade, like you get from a wall; it’s a floating moving shade, changing character all the time as the light filtering through the leaves changes. The cycle of light we’ve grown used to here has been determined by the annual cycle of that oak tree.

And its cycle of sounds, too: light rain and heavy rain, different in spring, summer and fall. Light breezes and strong winds, different when they’re going through leaves of spring, summer or fall, or across bare winter wood. The chattering and singing and calling of the birds and squirrels hanging out there, living there, finding meals there. A lively place,, my neighbor’s two-hundred-year-old oak tree.

There’s always been a lot of life in that ninety-foot-high trunk with all those limbs and branches and leaves. Squirrels use it as their main aboveground thoroughfare getting from the garages behind our houses to the street before their quick dash across the street into the park and back again. Sometimes, standing in my driveway, I’ve seen them come across from a far neighbor’s house, scamper across my garage, leap to the oak tree owner’s garage, leap from his garage to the oak tree, negotiate all the way across and through its huge web, leap to a maple at the curb and scamper down and out of sight for the run across the street.

The rookery of crows that inhabits the nearby cemetery a few weeks every year fills the tree twice a day as they circuit the neighborhood. Every now and then a woodpecker goes to work somewhere in it. Robins nest in it. Over the years I’ve spotted black-headed grosbeaks, cerulean warblers, orchard orioles, white-breasted nuthatches nesting in its branches or just loafing there for a while. Three years ago two red-tailed hawks lurked on its topmost branches for nearly a week. “It’s the straightest and tallest white oak I’ve ever seen,” Pete Seeger said when he first saw it fifteen years ago. “It’s so rare, a healthy straight white oak like that. It would make a wonderful keel for another Clearwater.” Clearwater is the sloop Pete helped build to encourage people to clean up the Hudson River. “If the owner ever wants to part with it,” Pete said, “tell him to call me.” Pete looked at the tree some more, then said, “But it shouldn’t ever happen: that’s a grand tree.”

And a grand tree it was, until this morning when the two-man crew arrived not long after dawn and began sawing off its branches and its limbs.

“Those limbs you’ve cut there look pretty healthy,” I said to one of the men taking down the tree.

“They are,” he said.

“What about the rest of the tree?”

“It’s fine,” he said. “Some dead branches at the top. The rest of it is okay.”

“So why are you cutting it down?”

“The owner wants it cut down.”

The other man in the crew said, “Makes you sick, to cut down a tree like that. But people have their reasons, I guess.”

The present owner of the house has been there three or four years. Not long after he moved in we were talking and I told him what Pete Seeger had said. I wasn’t telling him so he’d do it; I was telling him to compliment him on his tree

“Give me his number,” he said, “and I’ll give him a call. I’ve been thinking of getting rid of that tree. If he’ll pay for cutting it down, I’ll let him have the trunk if he can figure a way to get it out of here.”

“Why?” I said. “It’s a beautiful tree. It shades your house and mine, your driveway and mine. It’s in great shape.”

“Some of those upper branches aren’t so healthy,” he said, “and it’s close to my house and I’m worried that its roots will clog up my drains.”

“So you call the Roto-Rooter guy and he clears them out. Everybody with trees does that.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but then five or ten years later the roots grow back and you have to do it all over again. And in a storm, one of those branches might fall on your roof and you’d sue me or on my roof and it would cost me a lot of money.”

“So have the branches trimmed.”

“Maybe,” he said.

He never said anything more about it and I never gave him Pete’s phone number and neither did I tell Pete about the conversation. My neighbor at the time was complaining mightily about how much Medicare and health plans were eating into his income, so I figured he would never pay the five thousand bucks he said it would cost him to cut down the oak tree. More imporantly, I never believed he would do anything that awful. I was wrong.

And as I’ve been listening to the saw start up, cut, fall silent, then start up and cut again, and as I’ve seen more and more round circles of naked wood where limbs used to meet the trunk, and as it’s been more and more clear that the process is irreversible and the tree will die, I’ve been feeling more and more sick to my stomach. Just plain old sick to my stomach. Like I need to throw up.

Ours is a world in which countless infants die for lack of food and teenagers wrap their bodies with explosives and nails so they can die and kill for what they think are good political reasons. It is a world in which people drive airplanes into office buildings full of innocent people and convince themselves that God will thank them for their behavior. It is a world in which an American president is passionate to wage a war none of us understands and almost none of our foreign allies endorses, his administration fights at home to open the last great wild regions of Alaska to oil drillers and to reduce the risk of forest fires by clearcutting national forests, and his environmental agencies set about reducing the amount of environmental crime by relaxing the rules that define environmental crime. More than a million American men and women are in prison. The catalog of horrors and the manifestations of madness are without end.

What does the gratuitous death of one ninety-foot-high plumbbob-straight two-hundred-year-old healthy oak tree matter in comparison to all that?

Honestly, I don’t know. I just know that I’m sad and outraged and sick to see it killed, to know that this small part of my world will be diminished by the gratuitous destruction of that grand oak tree. I also know that I’m not really capable of thinking in terms of millions of acres of the Alaskan Native Wildlife Refuge or any of those other areas so facilely being given up, turned over, wiped out, sold for a pittance. But I can think of that tree, which I’ve taken comfort from and have loved for twenty-seven years. I can see that it is being killed by two men with a chainsaw. I know that it will not be here for the next inhabitant of my house, or for the next inhabitant of my neighbor’s house, or for any of the people who own these houses ever, or for the animals that have inhabited the tree and visited it season after season, year after year.

It’s all those trees, one by one, and all those lakes and rivers, one by one. One by one by one by one. Greed and bad taste and stupidity. One by one by one by one. If my neighbor asked me what I thought about this, which he wouldn’t, I guess I would say, “Nobody should kill a perfectly good tree without a perfectly good reason.” I’d say, “Nobody should kill anything without a perfectly good reason.”

BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University of Buffalo. He edits Buffalo Report.

His email address is bjackson@buffalo.edu.