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Sapped: In the gritty city, one tree can make a difference

Memoirs & Miscellany, Parks & the Great Outdoors Add comments

By Thomas Washington

A City of Chicago truck pulled to a squeaky halt behind our apartment building with a crew of lumberjacks perched in the back priming their chainsaws. They came to chop down a century-old elm tree that stood in the way of plans for a public housing site next door. I gathered something ominous was in store for the tree months earlier when men in hard helmets painted a red ring around its midsection, perhaps some sort of death code among city planners. Days later they followed up by spraying fluorescent orange stripes along the property. It’s never a good sign when you see these guys in your neighborhood.

Cutting the tree down was an easy solution. For the downtown bureaucrat it probably represented nothing more than an X on a blueprint—an obstruction that wouldn’t leave room for the cement mixers and bricklayers. My outlook differed.

I’d sat on the terrace enough afternoons to appreciate the shade the tree provided on hot days. Squirrels, pigeons, crows and cats made it their temporary haven. Sparrows fled the heat and brought melody to a neighborhood too often besieged with the whine of sirens and sporadic gunfire. Once, I watched an opossum save itself from kids who were ready to pounce on it with sticks. He didn’t climb down the tree until the next day. The tree’s base had flanks stretching from its trunk so that the truly idle passed the hours underneath with a six-pack, using the flanks as back support.

The tree symbolized longevity in a neighborhood of transients. It hid from view broken bottles on the school playground, the oil-stained alleyway and the telephone wires. It brought fullness to barren space.

I observed the chainsawing scene from my room above, feeling like one of those urban paranoids who spends too much time eyeing with suspicion anything that moves. Our back room stood just inches away from the elm tree. With the windows open in summer and eyes closed the sound of its leaves shaking in the wind inspired long hours of repose. It was the next best thing to having a tree house.

The death squad fanned into all directions with ropes, clamps and a shark-toothed pole to fell high branches. Blue smoke coiled up around the tree while the crew threw ropes around each limb and pounded spikes through its bark, raising a shiver in the tree from top to bottom. The neighbors came out of hiding at the first roar of the saws and formed a gallery along the alleyway. I couldn’t hear what they said, but their gestures and facial expressions said enough. They couldn’t make any more sense of it than I, not with the new building’s foundation standing more than ten yards away.

A pair from the team perched halfway up the tree with groaning saws in hand. One chewed a cigar stub and awaited the go-ahead from the foreman who paced below, figuring the correct angle for the limbs to be hacked. The pair in the tree muttered a brief exchange about the next job. After so many cuttings the heart must grow indifferent.

I grew up in a town outside Chicago and recall a similar approach to manicuring the landscape. Homes were built around trees then, or so it seemed, but it made the homeowners even more hell-bent on obliterating whatever stood in the way of the prized green lawn. The greenery could never be left alone. Bushes and shrubs were hacked into odd shapes, and grass clippings were dumped off the property to provide the illusion of a golf-course fairway stretching from one front lawn to another.

Our own family descended upon the lawn every Saturday with a vengeance, cutting back the week’s growth with a trimming mower, hedge clippers and an ax. What would the town think if we failed to keep nature at bay? Our own next-door neighbors never kept up too well with their weekly lawn grooming, and they were pariahs in the community. Suburban families seemed obsessed by floral neatness, denying the wild in favor of space that could be squared or partitioned with clear boundaries signifying ownership and mastery of the land.

The scene below my window had a similar look. Some crew always seems to be digging a new hole or bulldozing the earth in Chicago. You wonder if it’s done to keep them busy or if it’s just part of human nature to be perpetually building and destroying.

My wife descended upon the scene midway through the slaughter, just moments before the tree would lose its left arm. She tossed her sheet music to the ground and hounded the foreman to cease work immediately. In less than a minute, though, one of the saws buzzed through a limb, sending it to the ground with a thwack while kids cheered and danced around it, raising their arms in salute to the heroes perched above. The sawing drowned her voice until she stood amidst the ruin with the workers. The crew wore the expression that only men can wear, that dumb and callous look after wreaking havoc on something that someday will get us all into trouble.

It took the elm close to a century to reach its stature, and in less than one hour it lay flattened, its solid mass of trunk sprouting a few inches above a pile of chips and sawdust, a battlefield of gorged midsections camouflaged among branches strewn among the grass.

Days later a cement truck arrived to fill the hole where the tree once flourished. As a crowning point, the city unloaded a Dumpster and three parking blocks for anyone who might be moving in with a new car. Later we sat in the back room gazing into an airy hole where the tree once stood. It’s an unmistakable sight—looking past a space where a tree once flourished. Blunt objects come out of hiding—the telephone poles and wires and everywhere, cement.

Just a quarter-century ago, my dad planted a row of evergreen trees along our back yard (when he wasn’t buzzing the willow branches). We moved from that home fifteen years ago, but you can still walk along the Illinois Prairie Path and spot it from a half-mile. It’s not the home, really, that stands out in memory, but rather the trees that hint of something more lasting. Million-dollar homes have sprouted over every inch of the cornfield that bordered the property, erasing any vestige of nostalgia. Still, the evergreens appear to defy the march of progress while holding intact a sense of continuity. Who knows what he had in mind either when he planted them, but I figure there must be some sense among people, some instinctual drive of giving something back to the landscape that leads them to plant trees, or cultivate gardens, for that matter.

One can only imagine who planted the elm tree in Rogers Park nearly a century ago and what thoughts they had in mind. Maybe the elm was just something to fill a space in the backyard. Or, perhaps the decision was a conscious act for the benefit of community and landscape alike. And now it’s gone.

Of course, Chicago has a store of healthy trees and tree-lined boulevards, but such a blind decision by planners who don’t spare an extra moment to see how they’re affecting a neighborhood sorely in need of aesthetic elements seems an injustice. Who’s to say the new public-housing tenants wouldn’t have enjoyed the sight of a massive tree on their property rather than cement blocks and a Dumpster?

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