The tree is a locust. We have old photos: my husband and his siblings just children, my father- and mother-in-law proud, the just-planted locust a sapling in the side yard. The anomaly developed later. The teenaged tree branched into a perfect V, one thick leg pushing east, the other due west. Fast growing, big trunked, and loose-leafed, the adult tree towered over the house in not-so-many years. Later photos show just that. My husband grown and in his Easter suit, the locust’s mighty trunk in the background, the V far above his head and unseen.
A family favorite that tree, one of two big ones planted near the house. The locust had a job to do: shade the house, serve as perches for birds and squirrels. Wait. Have you ever seen a sixty-foot locust? The shade is dappled, and the leaves are small and lacey, and they dust at the sky in a soft breeze, and the trunk seems to be much ado for the little it produces higher up, and dead limbs fall out of it all year round, and the roots push up volunteer saplings in the yard. Birds don’t seem to nest in them: not enough cover, too much movement. But they are as lovely as a young girl in a green summer skirt, trailing ribbons.
Trees are friends. My own childhood favorite was a hollowed-out cypress that a low tide could be reached in my bare feet. At high tide, only by a green rowboat with rusty oarlocks. But it was mine. I gathered Spanish moss for cushioning for the deep hollow, so big I could fit into it, along with my books and my lunch of apple and peanut butter and Pepsi. Once or twice when I forgot the boat and read through afternoon, I either swam home or waited for the tide to change. Pintails, mallards, and black duck swam and dove. Once I saw a cottonmouth, intent for the far shore, its back stamped like footprints. Last time I was in that Pamlico River town, the cypress was still there, but smaller.
Today, I look out the kitchen window at the locust. The eastern leg of the V has shaded the kitchen, the dining room, and the master bedroom upstairs; the western V, a lovely patch of Bermuda grass, and a border of rhododendron and azalea that bank the top of the long drive down to the road. A suet cage for the red-bellied woodpeckers hangs from the trunk. A little perch gives them a place to stand; my mother-in-law wouldn’t have a bird inconvenienced. The swinging bench, rough of wood, without paint, faces northeast into Massachusetts – “a beautiful view,” she said often, urging people to sit there. If you took her advice and find your partner’s rhythm, you ha a fine view over Rhode Island’s woods into Massachusetts. A five-layered tree line, green to blue to gray to mist to sky. But I never saw my in-laws sitting there. They didn’t sit. The bench belonged to the squirrels by adverse possession. My father-in-law would look at their leavings and say, “They’ve been before us.” Still, he loved that locust.
My daddy was a tree lover. His favorites were long-leaf pines. Back in the early 1950s, he dug a hundred of them out of the Croatan woods, stuck them down into Maxwell House coffee cans, and set them out in the yard of our new house. “The cans will rust out,” he said. And they did. By the time I was struggling with Algebra I and looking for prom dates, those trees were way above the rooftop and waving their fragile arms straight out, looking for all the world like giant green scarecrows. But they were lawn trees. Landscaping. Daddy’s real love was his apple and peach trees. He pruned and sprayed and canned. And he counted the fruit..
But it’s the locust that’s to be taken down today.
My father-in-law saw the problem with the V and called the tree expert. Back in the 1980s, big-tree Vs were treated with steel rods, like those braces small children used to wear to keep their legs apart after hip surgery. The locust didn’t seem to mind the rod and screws. It wrapped its bark around them as if it knew it needed the support. The tree looked to be permanent – medical problem solved – and my mother-in-law, who never saw a square foot of earth without thinking of some growing thing perfect for the space, planted vinca at the base and let violets roam free. In the greenery, she nestled a granite birdbath. The area became the local hangout for birds perched on specialized feeders stocked with gourmet seed. A small pair of binoculars and a copy of The Guide to North American Birds sat on the kitchen sill in case new bird flew in for supper. The upside-down nuthatches took an instant liking to the bark.
The workmen unpack their surgical tools.
Until today, the steel rod’s been a perch for the local covey of doves that share our yard. The brace can serve a dozen or so when, late in the afternoon, they gather on the rod high above the birdbath, chased there by the raucous jays, but contemplating a cool dip. When sufficient in number, they drop to the vinca, hop up onto the stone birdbath, and begin the evening ritual of dousing and flapping, dousing and flapping. They’re good about taking turns.
Me, I’m a worrywart. I checked the trajectory of the eastern leg of the V when we moved into the house up on the hill. It’s not that my glass is half-full. Rather, it’s that I like to consider all the possibilities as if checking the V and the rod after an ice storm or nor’easter might be helpful.
“If that rod goes in the night,” I said to my husband, “we’re dead in our bed.”
When Hurricane Irene approached, I asked him, “Should we sleep in the guest room?” The other side of the house seemed safer to me.
I watched the Weather Channel for wind speed. Then I paid the tree a visit. But what do I know about tree crotches?
Daddy watched the hurricanes too. Hurricane Hazel, who blew her bitchiness right over our house back in 1954, arrived at sunset, howled all night, took down several of Daddy’s long-leafed pines, and damaged others. He was just sick about them. Mama was less concerned – she liked more light in the house – and my brother, who had to mow around every tree, appreciated fewer interruptions on the lawn. What I think is that Daddy wasn’t so worried about the pines as he was about the house, and he wasn’t so worried about the house as he was about the apple and peach trees.
Today, I know that it was Hurricane Irene who finally defeated the locust. Fully leafed out and heavy with rain, the crotch gave way. The next day, we found a deep crack running from the bottom of the V down into the heartwood beneath. We called Timber Tree.
The workmen unloaded their surgical tools. I watch from the kitchen. The chainsaw begins to buzz. It will buzz all day and into evening. First the lacey canopy, which the crane lifted up and out and over the woods and down. Balanced on rope, still alive, still green, it offered dappled shade even as it traveled its high trajectory to the brush pile. The cherry picker reached up; the crane reached even higher. Workmen were everywhere with ropes, pulleys, saws. They were quiet men, sharing a small job vocabulary in English and Spanish and Hmong:
“One more wrap.”
“Take that one next.”
Then much later, the legs of the Vs themselves, further down, closer to the heart. Sawed off mid-thigh, lifted by crane, they resembled amputated limbs aloft.
That part I couldn’t watch.
Branches lay in the yard. And logs. Too many to count. The tree men will come tomorrow to grind the stump.
There’s more light in the kitchen now, and the side yard has opened up. We’re thinking of a river birch if anything at all. Last week, a dove sat on the tuft of vinca, looking for the birdbath.