— Mahatma Gandhi
Leader, Indian nationalism
Knowing that America’s first president, George Washington, would be in my corner at a time like this, I feel a measure of reassurance.
Yet, I also realize my actions of the past few days await the scrutiny, and probable wrath, of good people like Cleveland Urban Forester Dan Hartman, arborial knight Allan Jones and Cleveland Shade Tree Board chairperson Jan Cheek, as well as anybody else who enjoys a good tree hug.
The Cleveland City Council, Cleveland Utilities and Cleveland State Community College won’t exactly be singing my praises either once I come clean with this dirty little secret. As most know, Cleveland is a Tree City USA, CU is a Tree Line USA and CSCC is a Tree Campus USA.
That’s lots of tree advocates in some pretty high places.
Nevertheless, as I am told, confession is good for the soul. So here’s mine.
In the last few days, I have served as accomplice to the felling of three magnificent trees — two maples and a red oak.
I am sorry.
I don’t remember the species of the maples. We planted them 20 years ago this month. One makes yellow leaves in October. One makes red.
The oak, which was called a scarlet oak when we bought it from the nursery, was also planted two decades ago as a sapling. It became a monster. It was even bigger than the maples. And the maples were mountains in bark.
Try as we might, our strategy in ’93 was flawed. Our plan then was to plant each tree far enough from the road that they would never threaten the power lines. Not ever.
“Not ever” lasted for 18 years. That’s about the first time the Cleveland Utilities tree-trimming contractor visited our front yard with giant sheers — actually, they were helmeted men with chainsaws in buckets — to trim away the aggressive limbs.
It wasn’t their fault. They were just doing their jobs.
It wasn’t the trees’ fault. They were just growing.
It was our fault, and mostly mine.
We picked out the trees from about a thousand species. We calculated their growth. We estimated their girth. And we did it all quite poorly.
We thought we knew what we were doing. We did not. Our intent was honorable, perhaps even noble. We not only would decorate our property with these towering miracles of Mother Nature, we would save the planet — and its people — by contributing to a source of oxygen, clean air and lots of shade.
We were good people.
But in time, we turned lecherous. The trees just got too big for our britches. They threatened the power lines that kept the lights on, and that kept us warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Their autumn leaves were beautiful, but the winds carried too many into neighbors’ yards. These are folks who didn’t have trees of their own ... with reason. They sought to avoid the drudgery of raking, mulching and more mulching. They sacrificed shade in the summer by avoiding laborious cleanup in the fall.
Their choice made the intrusion of my leaves even more unbearable — both to them and to my guilty conscience. Over the years, I mulched many a leaf on their side of the property line as a show of good faith, but the bigger the trees grew the more the leaf coverage spread ... and the greater the challenge on my convictions for keeping our yards tidy.
It took some convincing, but in time my wife came around. She probably just felt sorry for me. And then again, maybe it was my good acting. Pursed lips, trembling chin and even an isolated tear from a slump-shouldered husband will soften the resistance of any good woman — no matter how much she loved those trees.
The bottom line is this. She finally acquiesced to the felling. All three trees are now gone. Only their stumps remain. And those too will be ground into memory later this week.
But all’s well that ends well.
Each dropped tree will be replaced by another tree, albeit a much smaller, less intimidating one. We have selected crape myrtles. Their flowers will be a deep shade of red to match the burgundy of our home’s foundation, trim and shutters.
So as not to repeat mistakes of our past, these modest crapes will be planted even farther away from the power lines. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice ... and my wife is likely to take a switch to my backside. But without trees, her hunt for switching material could be both exhausting and futile.
I am reminded of my last tree-cutting confession. It came last winter after spending several weeks in the cold clearing out a thicket along the back property line. Among the victims of my ax and chainsaw were what some folks call “junk” or “garbage” trees. These species are created when somebody drops a weed on the forest floor and a tree grows.
In spite of their lowly image, these growths nonetheless are trees. I confessed to their destruction then just as I have today with the two maples and oak.
My conscience is now slightly eased, but those big trees will never be forgotten. They were part of our home. Our hands gave them presence.
Life takes many twists and turns. And so do trees.
Both are miracles. Each should be treated as such.
If George Washington really did chop down that cherry tree, I hope his reasoning was far more sound than mine.