Early in the morning the men came. You could feel the house shake as the big trucks rumbled down the street. The dog growled from the upstairs window and barked back and forth frantically, pacing through the parlor.
“The men are here to take down the tree,” my wife said. “You’d better move your car.”
I slipped on my shoes, grabbed the car keys and hurried out into the street. The tree surgeon stood at the side of the cherry picker, pulling on his safety harness. I hopped behind the wheel of my station wagon and moved it further down the street, well away from the massive ash tree in the neighbor’s yard. Today was the day they would take the ancient tree down.
Soon the street was crowded with vehicles: two dump trucks, a bucket loader, an industrial wood chipper, the foreman’s pickup truck. “You might want to move your other vehicles now if you’ll be needing them later,” the foreman told me. “Unfortunately, we’ll be blocking your driveway for most of the morning.”
I backed the other vehicles out of the driveway and parked them behind the station wagon before retreating to our front porch to watch the men work.
Soon the tree surgeon was high in the air, riding the bouncing grey bucket to the upper most branches of the massive tree. Shortly, his chain saw whined through the cool morning air as smaller limbs began to plummet down through a veil of cascading sawdust. They made sharp snapping sounds when they hit the street. The men on the ground collected the limbs and fed them into the wood chipper, which chewed and spat the fresh wooden flakes into the bed of one of the trucks. The air filled with the sweet scent of fleshy wood.
At one point the tree surgeon dropped the bucket down to retrieve a coil of heavy orange line and a block and tackle. Once again he propelled himself skyward in the cherry picker. He fastened the block and tackle to one of the sturdier limbs overhead, passed the line through the pulley and cinched it fast to a nearby limb. On the ground below a man stood by on belay at the other end of the rope, holding it taut. The tree surgeon’s chain saw barked to life and bit into the base of the tethered branch. In a moment it fell, dangling from the line. The man on the ground payed out the rope behind his back, lowering the branch gently to the ground, well away from the electrical wires that ran from the utility poles to the house.
Gradually, one by one the heavy limbs were amputated and dropped into the street, thudding against the ground like giant coffin nails. The bucket loader gorged itself on the pile of newly minted logs and regurgitated them into the bed of the other dump truck. As the tree surgeon worked, the clouds overhead began to break up. Blue patches grew larger and larger as the limbs of the old tree dropped to the ground with rhythmic thuds against the macadam pavement.
I was the one who had planted the seed for the tree’s demise. It was I who first voiced a suggestion to have the tree taken down. Many of the old limbs were dead and decayed; more than a few had splintered in the street during windy winter storms. I feared for the telephone and electric lines—or any unsuspecting passer-by. I spoke to my neighbors about it. They shrugged their shoulders, stared off into the distance an eternal moment, then nodded in agreement. Yes, the tree wasn’t safe; it should come down, they agreed. There was nothing else for it.
Through the morning hours I watched the men work: the tree surgeon deftly making his precision cuts high in the open air theater overhead; the ground crew feeding the severed branches and debris into the mouth of the wood chipper; the bucket loader scooping the heavier limbs and depositing them into the beds of the big trucks; the big-bellied foreman observing his men work.
Mid morning the sun came out, and the men continued to labor in the hot sun. Several of them pulled off their sweatshirts and paused to wipe their brows and readjust their yellow hard hats. Some of the men smoked, some of them drank from thermoses while they watched the tree surgeon contemplate his next approach as he swung the bucket back and forth high overhead.
As I watched, the scene took on that peculiar drama of a public execution. We were all in attendance to witness the demise of the big tree. Secretly, I had made myself a bet as to its age: 150 years. Later, I would count the rings at the base of the severed trunk.
But sitting on the front porch just then, I felt a sudden chill, as though I had betrayed an old and dear friend.