A Facebook friend recently posted that two of her favorite trees are dying and must be taken down. She was genuinely sad about it. I could relate.
I have a love/hate relationship with our trees. My husband and I live in a 1940s bungalow in a neighborhood where ancient hardwoods tower over the houses. When it doesn’t rain for weeks and weeks—like late-summer this year and now on into the fall—we worry about their shallow roots drying out and letting go. When it does rain, we worry about their shallow roots getting saturated and letting go. When it storms, we worry about wind and lightning.
And yet, we love our trees. We love the canopy of shade. We love it when they bud out in the spring, yellow against the sky. We love them in the fall when they turn. We wouldn’t trade our trees for the world, even though they can be scary and dangerous.
When Katrina roared through Jackson, Mississippi, still packing 75-85 mile-per-hour winds, we “lost” a tree. The big oak on the north side of the house had a forked trunk; at the base, the trunk must have been seven feet in diameter, but maybe fifteen feet above the ground, the trunk split in two. One part leaned south, toward our house; the other, north, toward the neighbor’s.
At the height of the storm, the “south” trunk snapped first and came down on our den, knocking a huge hole in the roof. My husband went out, determined to place a tarp over the hole, but the ladder shook (I was holding it; could I have stopped it from falling? I doubt it!) and the tarp kept blowing off. We gave up and retreated inside. We started moving things out of the den as the rain flooded in. While my husband carried out books, I unloaded china, including my mother’s, from the antique pie safe, the one with its original pierced tin doors. I don’t know why I stopped, but I left the room—maybe to check on my twenty-year-old cat, who I thought was dying—and while I was gone, the other trunk, the one that should have fallen on the neighbor’s house, not ours, came down on top of the first, splintering the rafters and filling the room with massive, broken tree. The pie safe was still standing in the corner of the room, but a big limb had stripped the opened tin doors right off. Later, in the debris, we found the tin panels crumpled like newspaper.
I’d just been standing there, right there, in that spot. Minutes before, my husband had been in the middle of that room. We held on to each other.
We couldn’t stay in the house; it was too dangerous. There was the poor cat, though, my beautiful calico, Portia, the last of four generations dating back to when my sons were young. I couldn’t leave her in the house, but our car was inside the garage, blocked by the tree. I called our vet’s emergency number, and she told me to bring the cat to her. She had a generator, she was taking in animals, and she wasn’t going anywhere, she said. So I asked our neighbor (looking back, I can’t believe I did) to drive me to the vet clinic, just a few blocks away. God bless her; she did. We drove through wind and flying debris and heavy rain, and I left my sweet cat in the arms of the vet.
We spent the night at the neighbors’ house. Sitting in their candlelit den, I couldn’t stop looking out the window. The storm had weakened, and the sky was strangely light. I could see the trees whipping in the wind. My husband and I couldn’t sleep, and finally, about five in the morning, he was able to get a call through to our insurance company—a crucial step, since the lines had been jammed earlier and most likely would be later, too.
In the light of day
We went out early the next morning and surveyed the damage. Devastating; we’d lost a major portion of our house, but we were lucky.
We were lucky to get a “tree man” that same day to start removing the massive tangle of broken tree. We were lucky to find a young architect who was also a builder/contractor to take on our rebuilding. Nearly nine months later, we had a brand-new 400-square-foot space in our house that is much nicer than it was before. Compared to the folks on the Gulf Coast, we were lucky, indeed. We had our house back. We were alive.
The cat, my sweet Portia, died, by the way. The vet called me the morning after the storm. “You’d better come,” she said, “if you want to see her again.” And so another neighbor drove me back to the clinic where I sat and held Portia, already cool and nearly lifeless, while she slipped away.
The neighbor drove me home, and I got on with the business of cleaning up.
Ten years ago, all that
And still, every time it storms, which it does here in the deep South, my husband and I get nervous. Huge limbs of a neighbor’s oak tree overhang our bedroom; through the skylights, we can see the trees dashed about by wind. There’s no safe place in our house, really. Oh, maybe an interior closet in case of a tornado, but I have a feeling not even that closet is safe from a hundred-year-old tree that decides to let go of its hold on the earth.
Every region has its bad weather. I’ve lived in places where it snows from October to April. Not for me. I think I’d rather hedge my bets against our majestic trees, especially this time of year when they start to turn, when the autumn sunlight has that shimmering quality and the sky is so intensely blue it looks like the filtered effect in a photograph.
Yes, I think I’ll stay. Trees and all.
Where you live, is there an element of nature that you both love and fear?