Timeless Beauty, Gone in a Day

The trucks came early on a Monday morning. The temperature was near zero; the only people in the park were the men driving the trucks and an occasional runner on the icy Greenbelt bike path.

Tree-service trucks aren’t what you expect to see in a city park on a morning when pipes and water meters have frozen and slick roads have traffic all but gridlocked. What were trucks and heavy equipment doing in Municipal Park at 8 a.m. on one of the coldest days of our Siberian January?

For the first few minutes, I  hoped it was routine maintenance – a  weakened limb or an isolated case of disease. The equipment, however, said otherwise. Too big, too much of it. They were going to take down one of the trees that were a big part of why we moved to this part of town nearly a quarter-century ago.

By 8:30, big limbs were falling. From our kitchen, we could hear them crashing. At the rate they were coming down, the tree would be a memory by lunchtime. I got on the phone.

The woman who took my call at the city’s forestry department said the tree had been dropping branches. Worse, two more of the park’s big Norway maples were going to go. They’d all been dropping branches, she said, and the city was concerned that a branch could fall on someone.

Well, yes. In 2010, a man was killed by a falling branch in New York City’s Central Park. Another man was badly injured by a falling branch in Central Park and sued the city for neglect. We live in litigious times. Earlier generations reasoned that if a branch fell and killed you, it was an act of God, rotten luck, your time. They called an undertaker and moved on. Today, we call a lawyer.

I called The Statesman. If the forestry people got a call from a reporter, it might remind them of a more civically engaged era when people chained themselves to trees they loved rather than let them be cut down. They might worry about publicity. They might call off the guys with the chainsaws, at least temporarily.

Was I overreacting? No one else seemed particularly concerned. We were talking three trees in a park filled with them, in a city with thousands of them – a city named for trees. Maybe in the digital, instant-gratification age, trees don’t mean as much to people as they once did. As a reader comment on The Statesman website later put it, “Time marches on. Trees get old. Plant new ones.”

Right. Then wait the rest of your life for them to be as majestic and beautiful as the ones they replace.

Besides, these were my trees. Not really, of course, but after 24 years of living beside them, of seeing them from my window or yard virtually every day, I’d come to have a proprietary feeling about them, irrational as it may have been.

My kids and grandkids played in their shade. We’ve cooked breakfast and eaten picnic lunches under their spreading canopies. I’ve attended weddings there, church services, a memorial for a colleague who died too young. I’ve spent countless hours in my back yard, admiring the massive towers of green that reached for the summer sky. If you listened closely, you could hear the trees – an almost inaudible whisper of air rustling the leaves.

By noon, two trees had been felled and a third all but stripped of its limbs. As the workers were leaving for lunch, I walked over and took some photos. I called some neighbors. Maybe calls from concerned citizens would make the city issue an eleventh-hour reprieve.

It didn’t.

By mid-afternoon, having seen no sign of a Statesman reporter or photographer, I called two of the local news stations. One tree, after all, was still standing. Maybe there was yet some faint hope.

“Thanks for letting us know,” the people at the news stations said, using almost exactly the same words. “We’ll pass it on.”

I knew from long experience what that meant. I’d used the same line myself. Translation: don’t hold your breath waiting for us to get there.

The Statesman did publish a story two days later: City forester Brian Jorgenson was quoted as saying that a falling branch had narrowly missed a woman and her child last summer. He also said Norway maples are doing poorly valleywide.

“We don’t know if they’re diseased or not,” Jorgenson told me. “For some reason they seem to be having problems when they reach a certain age. We need to team up with some pathology experts and see if we can find the cause. If it’s something we can do something about, we would if it’s fiscally feasible.”

Great. But it would have been nice if that had happened before resorting to the ultimate solution – chainsaws. Maybe the result would have been the same regardless. Maybe the trees were beyond hope. But if there was any hope at all, my guess is that the taxpayers who use and love the park would have thought it was worth the cost of finding that out.

It also would be nice, when the city plans to cut down old trees in its oldest parks, to give the public some notice and a chance to comment.

“We do that for trees in public right of ways, but not in parks,” Jorgenson said. “If it’s not an emergency, like a dead tree that poses an obvious danger, I wouldn’t be opposed to doing that.”

By evening, all three trees were down. We watched from the kitchen window as the last one fell. When the trunk hit the ground, it shook the house.

In a single day, trees that had taken half a century or more to grow were memories. Workers returned the following day to remove the remaining timber, leaving stumps and circles of sawdust in the snow.

Losing the big Norway maples, Jorgenson predicted, “will definitely change the appearance of the park.”

It already has. A part of the park loved for its shade and the towering columns of leaves that blocked out the sky is a sunny place now. New trees will grow there, but it won’t look the same in most of our lifetimes. And looking out the window will never be as pleasant.


Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in the  Statesman’s Life Section and posted the following Mondays on http://www.woodwardblog.com. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.


One thought on “Timeless Beauty, Gone in a Day

  1. As a proud tree hugger from way back, I feel your pain. I planted my first trees on the Fisher Farm in Eagle around 55 years ago – one of which is a sycamore that has seen many of my family joyfully swinging in its old tire swing. It now towers high above the huge lawn, providing cooling shade all summer long, until it sheds its leaves that bury the grass in a deep, fluffy blanket my brother is so happy to clean up. Right, Baby Dave?


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