To kill a tree, all you have to do is build a house.
In the yard of the house where I live stands a variety of evergreen trees: Douglas firs, cedars and, until last week, a lone grand fir about 80 feet tall. This fir is circled by a golden chain, several California lilacs and a couple of rhododendrons, all quite colorful in their season but not to compare with the quiet dignity of a tall old tree, whose branches would catch the westerly winds that blow down from the hill above our house.
When my family moved here 6 years ago, the tree looked a bit scraggly, but each spring it would sprout new growth on the tips of its branches. Clearly, the tree was undergoing a mighty struggle, one that I figured (being a strong believer in letting nature takes its course) the tree would eventually win. What we didn’t know was that the forces that would bring the tree down had already come and gone.
Despite the new growth and a couple of treatments to curb insects, the tree didn’t seem to be gaining and we worried that a strong west wind would bring it down on the house. Old evergreens in the neighborhood often topple during the wind and rain storms of winter here, and when they fall, power lines and roofs too often go down with them.
So a few weeks ago, we hired an arborist to evaluate the tree, and what he said made me sad: The tree was dying and it would have to be taken down. As he explained it, grand firs have shallow roots, and the roots of this tree had likely been damaged during construction of the house more than 10 years ago, long before we arrived. Though the tree was fighting valiantly, it would eventually lose the battle.
And so, reluctantly, I scheduled the death of the tree.
The arborist and his crew arrive promptly at 9 on a cloudy Wednesday morning, rolling slowly down the driveway in several trucks. Dressed in jeans, T-shirts, boots and hard hats, they unload their gear – chainsaws, rakes and large trash bins – and position the wood chipper, which is attached to the back of one of the trucks.
In just a few minutes, a young man scales the tree, spikes on his boots, a bungee cord around his waist, his muscled arms wielding a chainsaw. He wears goggles, a red hard hat, and leather gloves. The spikes on his boots allow him to walk around the tree to find the best angle to begin each cut. A tool belt is slung round his hips.
First, he uses the chainsaw to carve out a wedge about half way down the south side of the tree. Then he saws from the space left by the wedge through the trunk as he moves around to the north side. As the saw churns through the last few inches, the top half of the tree falls in one long arc in a matter of seconds, the limbs slowing its descent to the ground.
If a tree falls in the yard…
It makes a loud crack when it hits the ground.
With the top section on the ground, other crewmen go to work, severing limbs to be thrown into the wood chipper. One of the crew measures lengths along the trunk with his chainsaw (two saw-lengths equal 16 inches, the preferred size for firewood). At each interval, he marks the bark with the saw, and then cuts the trunk into chunks.
Another crewman rolls them into a pile near the driveway.
Back on high, the next section of the tree comes down in chunks. From his tool belt, the tree-cutter pulls a thin curved saw with a wooden handle, which he uses to measure and mark the trunk. He measures quickly — two saw-lengths down — slashes across the bark, pockets the handsaw, and then revs up the chainsaw to cut through the trunk.
The flowers on the front porch stand silent witness.
The tree-cutter slides each chunk off center and then pushes it off the trunk and it thuds to the ground. Standing below, another crew member moves these chunks into piles, chasing down the logs that roll down the slope.
The bottom third of the tree is to be left in place as a “snag” for wildlife. The tree-cutter rounds the top of the snag with his chainsaw.
Then up go the birdhouses.
The completed snag.
This is a good cleanup crew. They rake up debris, all brush is chipped, and the driveway is cleared.
The older sections of the tree have much more character than the younger sections.
Bugs found a good home in this tree.
Under the bark, a smooth surface.
Finally, the arborist “debriefs” his team in the driveway and, an hour and a half after their arrival, the crew members climb into their trucks and drive away.
Later in the day another man comes to haul away the biggest chunks to sell. The tree yields about 1.5 cords of firewood, but there’s some debate about its value. Some people say this wood is fine for burning, some say it emits a lot of creosote that clogs up a chimney.
Above the snag now, only sky.
Counting the rings: Fifty years to grow, 20 minutes to be cut down.
In his book The Soul of a Tree, George Nakashima, architect and furniture maker, notes: “In Japanese, kodama, the ‘spirit of a tree,’ refers to an experience known to almost all people of this island nation. It involves a feeling of special kinship with the heart of a tree. It is our deepest respect for the tree which impels us to . . . offer the tree a second life of dignity and strength” (p. 132).
I am no artist or furniture maker, but I can give our tree a second life. I spend the rest of the morning placing chunks from the top half of the tree around the yard. The tree stays with us, incorporated into the landscape, integrated it into our daily existence.
By lunchtime, the yard is quiet and tidy again. My palms are scraped up by the bark, my arms ache, and my sweatshirt is gummed up with sap, but I feel good.
I smell like a tree.