March 31, 2005

Falling Hard

If a tree falls in the suburbs, does it make a sound?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Say it with me, “Oh yes yes yes! The falling suburban tree makes a mighty, mighty sound!”

The first to be heard was a tall cherry tree whose gentle lean seemed innocuous at first glance but which became more ominous upon closer inspection. Those Who Know About Such Things said the split in the trunk was due to wind. Wind that caused its massive trunk to twist and split from the pressure. I honestly didn't really believe the first Tree Man who suggested that. How could it be wind damage? After two others opined the same, however, I opened my mind to the possibility. They also all seemed to know it was a cherry tree. News to me. To me, cherry trees all look like those planted around the Tidal Basin. You know, the ones that are about to bloom into a riot of pink delicate beauty in our Nation's Capitol. This cherry tree, however, wasn't like those at all.

But back to that split. Geez. It would take the seriously windiest of the windy-ass winds to torque a tree that size. Mother Nature is amazing.

I could slip my fingers into the long crack. It was almost soft inside, crumbly. Trees aren’t supposed to feel like that. Before another random force came along and caused it to give up the tenuous hold on its vertical position and crush not only our pretty fence but also our neighbor’s house, we called in someone to bring it down more gently.

Tree people are interesting folks. There are more than a few consistencies among them, such as they all drive trucks. While I am usually loathe to stereotype, I nevertheless feel confident making such a sweeping statement. Oh wait. They all wear caps too. And need a shave. At least here in northern Virginia they do. And the obvious commonality: they all are fucking crazy. Why else would they dangle themselves so far off the ground hanging by strings tied with dubious knots way the hell up in trees? Sane people don't do that. They just don't.

In addition to the injured cherry tree, we had another issue: The Mighty Pine. A stately tree, towering 80 feet in the air, growing about a yard from the foundation of our porch. It hovered over the house, dropping incredible quantities of debris which regularly had to be cleared from the roof. Not to mention the potential danger from falling branches. If one of those massive branches happened to fall on the roof, there is no telling what size hole it would leave behind. While such a hole could make interesting conversation, our roof prefers to remain intact. Really. It told us so. The roof did. Roofs rarely lie.

I had never seen a tree taken down, at least not any tree of enormity. It was a fascinating process to watch. The Tree Man strapped on spikes and a harness, his chain saw dangled from his belt. He scrambled up the tree with the greatest of ease, ropes and pulleys trailing as he ascended the trunk. Can you spot him in the picture?

The process required much coordinated rope tying and cutting. He zipped off whole branches and lowered them gently to the ground. His men would swarm the fallen limb with their chain saws and feed the detritus into the chipper.

Cutting down trees is loud work. The kind of loud that can't be escaped without getting in the car and driving away. Far, far away. Chain saws. Chippers. Stump grinders. It was a veritable cacophony. I stood around with my fingers in my ears.

The crown and trunk of the tree were handled a bit differently than the branches. A rope was tied around it high up and the crew on the ground put steady pressure to influence the direction of the fall. The cut segment would plummet in a semi-controlled manner to the ground far below. Once the trunk was of a certain height, a rope at the top and a cut at the bottom brought the rest of it down as one piece.

And that’s when I heard it. The Whomp Heard 'Round the Suburbs. As I stood gaping, the main trunk crashed down, shaking the ground with an amazingly loud whomp. Whomp describes but one dimension of the sound. It was deep. It was resounding. It was jarring. Yet soft. It could be felt it inside and out. Body and house. The soles of my feet were left tingling.

Not surprisingly, the trunk of the tree left a trunk-shaped depression in the ground. So did the ground make the sound or was it the tree? I don’t know. It was fleeting and left only a resonant memory. This cherry tree, however, left a ton of what will become firewood. The cross-section of the trunk revealed how far the decay had progressed. Poor tree.

I thought the cherry tree coming down was impressive. But that was before they started on The Mighty Pine.

One approach to our house is driving downhill on a fairly quiet suburban street. The Mighty Pine could be seen towering over the roof. Before the other non-pine trees bloomed for the season, the greenness of The Mighty Pine offered a splash of bright color against the brown nakedness of the other treetops. That view had been there, in some form, for 76 years, give or take a few. (Yes the tree was at least that old. I counted the rings. The cross-section fascinates me. I know, I know, I make it sound like so much faux drama. But seriously. 76 years is a lifetime's worth of years.)

So the Tree Man was way the hell up in that pine tree, roping and cutting and lowering down massive branches one by one. Amazingly, nothing even came close to hitting the roof despite the proximity. As the limbs hit the ground, his crew swarmed and cleared them. Then it came time to take down the crown of the tree.

My neighbor and I were standing in the far back of the yard, staying out of the way, watching the men work. As the massive crown of this tree was brought down, I think I screamed something along the lines of “HOLY SHIT!” as it crashed to the earth. I could not hear myself yelling. The noise as it crashed through the upper reaches of our other trees and the whooshing sound it made as it fell covered up my pathetic fearful mewling. It was more entertaining than many movies I’ve seen.

But the best was yet to come. The most impressive event of the day was the felling of the trunk of The Mighty Pine. Oh sure, taking off the crown had been exciting. But much of the tree's height, albeit naked height, still remained. We spectators waited patiently for the brush to be cleared, the ropes to be set and the cuts to be made.

At this point we had a little flock of spectators. Our neighbor and me, the neighbors behind and the family of five from two doors down were all watching intently from a safe distance as the work progressed. Well. In reality, the little baby in the mother's arms probably wasn't really watching. But his sister and brother appeared riveted.

Before descending the tree, the Tree Man had attached a rope high on the trunk. Five guys held the other end. They were poised to play a game of tug-o-war, it seemed. The Tree Man made a few cuts at the base of the tree and signaled to the others to start pulling. I was bouncing back and forth on the balls of my feet in anticipation as discreetly as I could manage. (I'm sure I looked like a complete idiot. I was out there bouncing and snapping pictures like a tourist in my own backyard. Eh, who cares? No one was paying attention to me anyway.)

Zip zip zip. Sharp cracking sound. Gentle tug-tug-tugging. Whistling whooosh. Loud whomp and it was over. A rousing cheer arose from the spectators. I cheered with them but as that trunk hit the ground, a little balloon of guilt burst in my chest. We had just butchered a perfectly good tree. A perfectly good tree that had been growing long before any of us came along. A perfectly good tree who merely had the misfortune of growing too close to our house. An unfortunate Mighty Pine.

I thought back to just a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago when the weather was sunny and bright, a break in the brisk cold of a typical winter day. That sunny bright weather combined with a free Saturday afternoon had me hankering to do something outdoors. First I scooped poop, a neverending outdoor chore. As I made my poop-scooping rounds through the backyard, the thick layer of pine needles covering the roof of the porch caught my eye and niggled at my conscience.

There was a chore that really needed doing! But I'd have to get up on the roof to do it. Heights and me do not get along. Never have, never will. But a wild hair hit. Before I knew it, I had the ladder out, the rake and broom tossed up on the roof. Then I hauled my fat ass up there.

It was about then when Wendy came out of the house and said, "What are you doing up there!?"

You see, roof climbing is Wendy's domain. Because I prefer my feet on the ground and such. But remember that wild hair. I had a mission. She sighed, grabbed the other broom, and climbed up to join me.

We cleared the roof of a thick layer of tree debris. Wendy climbed over to the front of the house and cleaned the gutters while she was up there. I stayed on the relatively flat porch roof and swept and raked. It's an odd thing to rake a roof, yes it is.

So for now I just need to remind myself of the amount of work it was to clean up after that tree. Mountains of pine needles. I should think of Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth, moving a hill of sand one grain at a time with a pair of tweezers. That's what cleaning up after that tree felt like. Never-ending mountains of pine needles. Maybe then I won't feel so bad about having had it cut it down. Maybe.

I think I'll make up for both of those trees by planting two others. It seems only right.



Unknown said...

i love this entry ... beautifully told ... and i love the fact you're going to replace both trees with new ones ... great pics, great yarn, top story

Eyes for Lies said...

I love the way you think. At the end of the post, I was like...oh I hope she plants two more trees...and you had already thought of it :) I hope one is a pine :)

We had a 70 foot ash cut down two years ago. I know the experience is heart-pounding. I took tons of photos too :)

I was so sad but we had waited until the tree was so dead -- if we waited any longer, they told us they wouldn't have climbed it anymore! Whew.

Another tree was dying in the yard and we were sitting under it. I didn't realize the danger. On a quiet day, without wind, a huge limb fell down within inches of my husband and I without warning. It would have killed on of us if we were under it -- or seriously injured us. It gives me a new respect for unhealthy trees.

weese said... that a screened porch you have there?
i think you need to post some more yard pics to get more of a feel for the landscape, and how it looks now without these trees.