I never knew that the fresh death of trees could undo me, but it did.
There is a steep hill directly across the street from my house. High and narrow, its summit is about 75 feet from its base. The road stretches like a dark ribbon between where my yard stops and the hill begins.
The hill is too precarious to build anything on. For the seventeen years that I’ve been in this house, the hill and its riot of tall pines have been my only facing neighbor.
Over the years, four or five pines have come down, primarily during storms.
They generally fall on the road, or on the power lines at the bottom of the hill.
Once, the tip of a pine landed on my neighbor’s car, doing a bit of damage.
Once, a limb took out my neighbor’s mailbox (but, oddly, left mine unscathed).
I’ve never been worried that a tree will fall on my house. My husband (who has much better depth perception than I do), has assured me a dozen times that none of the trees, even the tallest ones, could reach the house.
“You might lose those lawn chairs though,” he said once, pointing to the trio of chairs I’d set up beneath our modest catalpa tree.
“I could live with that,” I’d replied.
As it turns out, there was someone who was worried about the trees — the owner of the property. His house is located on the other side of the hill.
I didn’t know he’d been watching the pines sway and bend, driven to distraction by the thought of a tree doing severe damage to someone’s property or, worse, causing physical harm.
When he stopped by my house on a Friday last March and said, “I just wanted to let you know that a crew will be here to remove four or five trees tomorrow morning,” I’d simply nodded, thanking him for the heads up.
From my home office, which used to be my daughter’s room, I can see the hill and all its trees. I’d moved my office into Ana’s room in June of 2017, four months after she died. My desk faces the window that looks out over the yard, my bird feeders, and the hill with its towering pines.
I’m probably the only person that really cares about the hill, that knows the configuration of the trees by heart.
Once, I saw a flock of red-winged blackbirds at the top of the pines. Their chatter sounded like pebbles tumbling down a mountain.
Once, I saw a red-tailed hawk perch on the tallest pine, melting into the canopy of needles like a wraith. I watched the spot for 15 minutes before I saw it take off again.
There was a large nest in a pine close to the base of the hill. I’d been hoping its old occupant, maybe that hawk, would reclaim it in spring.
All those trees are gone now.
On the Saturday after my neighbor approached me, the sun had barely finished the business of rising before a big white truck pulled up, the kind with a cherry picker meant for reaching very high places.
A tractor appeared on the top of the hill and my husband and I marveled at the site of it on the steep slope.
Later, my neighbor told me they’d needed a winch to get it up there and he’d held his breath as he’d watched it ascend from his side of the hill.
It didn’t take long for the first tree to fall.
I watched, fascinated, as the cherry picker lifted two men about fifty feet so they could secure a chain to the trunk. Once the vehicle was out of the way, a chainsaw, distant and muffled, marked the beginning of the end for that unfortunate pine.
The man with the chainsaw hurried down the hill as the tree fell backward, crashing through the dense understory of my tiny forest. The men left it where it fell, moving onto the next tree.
My 13-year-old daughter slept through the first two trees, but the third one shook our house when it hit the ground after a loud crack that I imagined was the tree’s last gasp.
They came down steadily after that, one after the other, so much more than just five or six trees. Always, the men left them where they fell. We watched most of them fall, the three of us, running to the windows when we heard the chainsaw start up again.
“This is something I’ve never seen,” I thought, as the tree with the nest came down, colliding with smaller trees before landing with an explosive thud.
I took my daughter shopping at around 3:00, carefully navigating the car out of the driveway and around the truck with the help of one of the workers.
When we returned about ninety minutes later, the men, the truck, and the tractor were gone.
They’d left a wreckage of jagged stumps, severed trunks, and tangled canopies in their wake. In six hours, they’d transformed my hill into a painful reminder that nothing is permanent, that even the tallest of trees — the oldest of pines — can be destroyed in less than a day.
I surveyed the hill with a sinking heart. It was a mess and I suspected that there would be no cleanup. After, all, I was the only one truly affected by the destruction of these trees. I was the one person who had been staring at them all winter long from my daughter’s old bedroom. I ran upstairs to see if the view was a bit better from up high, but it was so much worse.
From my office window, I could see all the carnage — every sharp splinter of wood, the piles of pine needles, still green, the thick trunks piled on top of each other, discarded.
I never knew the fresh death of trees could undo me, but it can. It has.
I don’t remember making a conscious decision to go to my neighbor’s house, but I found myself walking down my street, consumed with one question. “Would they remove the dead trees or would I have to stare at this forever?”
I don’t know these neighbors well. My few encounters with them had been good. A few years ago they found a cat of ours that had gone missing. We’d put signs up with our phone number and they called. The cat had been hit by a car and died by the edge of their yard.
They offered to bury him in a little pet cemetery they’d created for their own animals over the years, so we’d visited — me and the girls — leaving flowers and stones on the cat’s grave. My older daughter had been eleven at the time. It was three months before she was diagnosed with cancer.
I found myself on their steps, already crying. They ushered me in, insisted I sit down, gave me a tissue.
I managed to get my question out in between sobs, “Will you be clearing out the dead trees?”
“No, no of course not,” the man said. He had an accent that I couldn’t place. I’d forgotten his name. “We needed to take them down, they were dangerous.”
From their kitchen window, the hill looked pristine. They couldn’t see the wreckage on my side.
I wanted to tell them what my husband said, that there’d been no real danger from the trees. I wanted to point out that the town always came when a tree fell on the wires, and cleared the tree, and fixed the wires. But I couldn’t stop crying. When I finally got myself under control, I explained how the trees had been my companion in grief.
“I watched them every day. I knew every tree.”
In that moment, I wasn’t able to ask that they remove the dead trees or explain that cleaning up my side of the hill would make the destruction much more tolerable. They’re an older couple who were worried someone would get hurt. They couldn’t possibly know how much the trees meant my broken heart.
The day after my in-person visit, I called them. The woman answered the phone. I apologized for being so upset and was finally able to ask her if they could clean up some of the mess. Again, she refused.
“The hill is dangerous,” she said, “It was hard for the guys to get their equipment up there in the first place.”
“But you caused that mess,” I thought. Aloud, I said, “It looks like a tornado blew through there.”
“The trees needed to come down,” she repeated. “They were dangerous.”
“But you can’t see what it looks like from your side of the hill,” I said. “It’s horrendous.”
She got defensive. “They’re going to take a few trees away for the hardwood,” she said. “I don’t know if it’ll be up to your standards, but there will be some clean up.”
I was astounded. They’d pulled down nearly a dozen trees and left them there. I’d gotten comfort from the trees and now they were gone, except they weren’t gone. They were strewn about the hill, semi-permanent reminders that nothing could ever truly give me solace again.
Our conversation grew tense and my husband, watching me from across the room, indicated that I should drop it. I ended the call.
“We don’t have a leg to stand on,” he said. “It’s their property.”
“They were my trees,” I said, staring out the window at the ravaged hill. He wisely stayed silent.
Two days later, I heard a chainsaw’s familiar growl and watched as my neighbor cut up one of fallen logs, slicing it into neat circles which he later removed. It wasn’t much of a cleanup, but at least one tree was gone.
He came back the next day and the next, removing bits and pieces of hardwood presumably to burn, but he left the pine trees where they’d fallen.
I had begun to accept the fact that the pines would remain, rotting in plain view of my office window. I stopped crying every time I saw the hill and began studying the remaining trees, learning the new topography of my old hill.
But my neighbors weren’t done with the cleanup. Maybe it was my tears that first day, or maybe they hadn’t realized how bad the hill would look after they took the trees down, but the workers reappeared about a week after that white truck showed up with its cherry picker.
They worked all day, pulling downed logs over the peak of the hill and out of site, removing piles of pine needles, and clearing out the worst of the mess. When they were done, I counted ten fresh stumps poking out from the bottom of the hill.
I still miss my trees, but my gratitude is endless. When spring finally brings its canopy of green, I hope that the new growth will soften what remains of the destruction. The hill remains wild and beautiful. Like me, it just needs some time to recover.
Postscript: It’s been a year since my neighbor cut down the trees, and the hillside has recovered beautifully. There is one pine which was sheared in half. It still stands at least 100 feet tall, but with no canopy — making it the perfect raptor perch. Eagles and hawks perch on this tree all day long. I can see them from my window as I work.