Tree’s Company

The lovely residents of our yards provide a lot more than shade.

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Tree's Company. Indianapolis Monthly July 2011. Illustration by Andrea EberbachartI take the trees in my yard personally. To me, they are not merely organic beings, but friends. I celebrate them, chart my life’s progress through them, bond with them. If I didn’t sound crazy enough already, I’d say they complete me.

In summer, when they exhibit their full leafy splendor, I express my pride by patting them approvingly on my way to retrieve the morning paper. I am practical enough to know my trees don’t feel, but still. They react, offering an impressive display of foliage when they are comfortable, yellowing and dropping their needles and leaves when they are stressed. There is some kind of there, there.
Considering my attachment, you can imagine my dismay when, last spring, I was forced to accept the demise of the five fine full-grown spruces that divided my yard from that of my neighbors. Those trees kept me from seeing in their garage, muffled the sounds of their pool parties, ensured privacy in our screened-in porch. The evergreens stood as silent sentry, doing their duty without complaint or complications.

The fall drought—three months without measurable precipitation—was to blame, causing their needles to turn yellow. And then a deep rust color. And then to drop to the ground, leaving gnarly, barren branches. The suffering was obvious, and no amount of chemicals pumped into their bases or water soaked into their roots would help. Finally, nothing was left but dry twigs. Were they human, their lips would have turned blue as they exhaled their last gasps.

The baby grew, but the tree did not. I left it there, unable to pull the plug while there was still chlorophyll in its veins.

And so, this spring, we contracted to have them replaced. Trees don’t mean anything to tree guys, and, sensing brutality—a wood chipper!—I stayed away. I did the same when my 21-year-old cat, Scooter, was put to sleep. Soon after, I tried replacing her with a spry orange kitten, but I ended up returning him to the veterinary clinic a few days later. He climbed my drapes and clawed my couch, and, worst of all, wasn’t Scooter. With any luck I’d like my new trees better.

They turned out to be squat Norway spruces, making up in girth what they lacked in height. We appreciate their vibrant color and thick needles and are watering them as instructed. They are doing their job, providing a dense border, so we are doing ours. They look like kids out there among the mature trees on our property: hopeful, somehow. For now, I can see over but not through them. It’s a start.

Trees mark the passage of time in a visible and emotional way. When we are ready to move, we can say goodbye to the cracked tile and outdated appliances of an old house, but it’s heart-wrenching to leave our trees. Two houses ago, I remember feeding my firstborn son in the breakfast room while admiring a little tulip tree we had planted in the backyard. I assumed the tree and the baby would grow up together. But a violent storm came along, and with it a bolt of lightning that topped our tree. The baby grew, but the tree did not. I left it there, however, unable to pull the plug while there was still chlorophyll in its veins.

I often swing by that first house, admiring the other trees we planted. The ones that remain are towering now, and the spindly pin oak in the front yard has thankfully outgrown the twisted trunk of its adolescence. While I’m visiting old friends, I often stop by the cozy home my mother moved into as a new widow in her 80s. As the family’s designated arborist, I met with a landscaper when she moved in and requested large trees. We didn’t have time to waste.

The flowering pear tree she loved now holds court over the entire yard. It is a show-stopper, and, eight years after her death, I tell her: “Look, Mom, how your ‘powder puff’ has grown!” There is no answer, of course, but I believe the tree appreciates both its history and the compliment, its blooms fuller with each passing year. It is as if the tree wants to prove itself to her, doing the work she so admired.

I know I’m risking a trespassing arrest, but I sometimes pull into the driveway of the house in Meridian-Kessler where I grew up. A massive sugar maple stood in front of my girlhood bedroom, not close enough whereby I might climb her branches in an attempt at, say, eloping, but close enough so I could hear the rustle of leaves through my screened window and enjoy the dappled sunlight on my walls.

In its place is something scraggly and lacking pedigree, but lower in the yard, randomly situated among some shrubbery, is a smaller version of our original tree, growing straight and proud. Females live in a fairy-tale world of happy endings—my 3-year-old granddaughter proclaims the end of Snow White as “so beautiful”—so I like to believe that little tree must have sprung from a drifting pod. It is our family descendent.

As an elementary-school student, I experienced the rites of fall when we were herded  as a class through Holliday Park, collecting fallen leaves and dutifully pressing them between the pages of our thickest books. After they dried flat, we mounted them in scrapbooks and identified and described each. (I liked this exercise much better than swooping around flowerbeds with bug nets to capture butterflies, which we were instructed to asphyxiate in a jar and impale with pins in paraffin.) I can still identify trees by the leaves they shed, but as butterflies go, I wouldn’t know a swallowtail from a viceroy. Respecting—not destroying—a life form tends to make one appreciate it.

Most trees we love will outlive us, standing where we stood. Maybe they won’t remember, but, like my mother’s flowering pear, will continue to prosper, out of respect.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbachart.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.

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