My street is only two short blocks with 8 houses. There are many more trees than houses on these blocks. Mighty oaks, a big black walnut and a massive maple. All but one of the houses are two stories tall with attics, and they are dwarfed by the trees. The houses were built in the early 1900s, and most of the trees were here first.
The canopy they create, stretching over roof tops, reaching out to meet above the streets creates an oasis of cool on hot summer days. Their leaves pile in mountains of earthy color in our yards each fall. In the winter, their revealed architecture casts a web of branches against the sky and frame the stars and moon in the cold, quiet nights.
I live on the west side of a dauntingly steep hill that gave our neighborhood its name – University Heights. On the east side of that hill, Wisconsin soldiers mustered for duty in the Civil War at Camp Randall. They cut a lot of the trees on the east side of the hill and dragged them down to their swampy camp for firewood. But they spared the trees on the west side because hauling them up and over the peak wasn’t worth it. Now we have the equipment to remove these trees and barely raise a sweat.
So the oaks on this slope are old. They are big. Some have been here over 150 years. Who knows how long they could last? But for a tree, life in the urban forest if filled with risk. They can stand only as long as the current owner of their piece of earth consents. A tree that has been part of its ecosystem for more than a century can be cut by someone who “owns” it for year, a month, even a day.
For one of these ancient oaks, its last day was today. As I wheeled our garbage can out to the street this morning I was startled to see a huge crane in the next block. A neighbor three houses down was having a tree cut down. It was one of the grandfather oaks. And now it is gone.
I don’t know why they decided to cut it down. Cutting these gentle giants is not a community decision. Perhaps it should be.
Some people see the tons of oak looming over them and feel uneasy. And with good reason. Every now and then, one of them comes down without warning. And when a tree of that magnitude falls, it can sweep a lot of human construction along with it. A few years back, a 6-ton tree limb fell our way from our next door neighbor’s yard. I heard it falling in the night and believed, briefly, that I was a gonner. It hit brushed the outside of my bedroom wall and smashed the porch. The remaining 12 tons had to be taken down because of the seriousness of the injury.
Across the street an oak had a small hole that had been “treated” in the 1940’s by filling with concrete. That method is no longer used because the concrete wicks moisture and slowly rotted this timeless sentinel at its heart. Last year it’s weakened trunk snapped eight feet from the ground one peaceful afternoon, barely missing a parked car. Its outstretched branches yanked the electric and cable wires out of eight houses (including ours) as it toppled.
So who knows?
The tree removal firm was very adept with their crane and their saws and their chipper, and by the end of the day, they swept up the sawdust and drove away. The tree had vanished, cut even with the ground. Below ground, its roots will be in for a shock this spring and then slowly decompose.
The world will miss that tree.
I miss it already.