How long had it taken for the crab apple to reach its height and spread across the expanse of back yard? The lifespan of a crab apple depends on the rootstock and the conditions of its habitat. John Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed as he’s become known, traveled on foot planting apple seeds, including crab apple seeds. Crab apples planted in urban-landscapes to line the street may not last more than ten years. Here in our yard it is reasonable to expect a medium life span of 25-50 years. When was this crab apple planted and by whom? Which of the many owners of this property chose that difficult spot between fir trees by the river and oak trees farther inland? Positioned in grass made patchy because of the shade, the crab apple never received the kind of light it needed, and like so much else in the yard, it grew up to find the sun it craved. The black walnut trees have slender branchless trunks thrusting 60 feet into the air and leaning out to catch the rare angles of sun that strike down and through the tree cover before their plumes dangle in the power lines that run smack-dab in the middle of the yard.
What hopes accompanied the original planting of the crab apple? Perhaps they fondly remembered crab apples in the yards of their growing-up places. They walked to school along streets lined with crab apples, as my children did, and remember with sharpness the profusion of springtime blossoms. The crab apple carries the beauty of the ordinary, not the elegance of Korean dogwoods or the extravagance of magnolia. It’s the kind of tree I expect to see on the incline of a hill or standing guard in the school yard. Like most of us, perhaps the original planters wanted to recreate a little of their childhood in their own yards, for their children.
This area of our Tacoma Hills subdivision, with the Red Cedar River running through it, was once woodland and wet land. Much of the timber was cleared, the land drained, and developed. Some houses like ours were built inside a pocket of trees and up from the river on an incline. We’re among the lucky few whose property was not entirely cleared. Living here feels as if we’re living in a tree house. Sit on our screened porch and if the screens were removed you could reach out and touch the rough bark of an oak.
Two crab apple trees with plum red blossoms stood as sentries in the yard where I grew up, one on each side of our four square white colonial. They anchored my childhood, my life in that house. One snaked all the way up to my second story window and so close that I could step out onto the ledge and into the crux of the tree. Sometimes I made my way down and away without my parents knowing, ensconced as they were in their bedroom on the other side of the house. My fondness for crab apples traces back to the scented blossoms pressing in through my window in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Ten years ago when I returned to my growing-up place for my mother’s funeral, I revisited the house with the crab apples that had figured so prominently in my memory that they had almost attained the status of myth. I walked from my sister’s house near the Rose Garden along the sidewalks of my youth until I reached 22nd street and there, in the middle of the block, was our old house, now painted a rich mustard color, not white. Gone were the splashes of yellow forsythia marking the place where sidewalk intersected the pathway to the front door, gone were the jagged stone walls and the bed of unruly lily of the valley, gone were the sentries of childhood, the crab apples.
Like so much else one should foresee but doesn’t, I didn’t think the crab apples wouldn’t be there as I had left them, that while I underwent revolutions of change, they would remain the same. Perhaps they aged poorly. Or sustained wounds they couldn’t recover from. Or perhaps one of the successive owners thought them an eyesore. I can hardly bear thinking about their demise. I care nothing that the house is now an ugly mustard brown and the shutters are no longer lacquered black. It’s the death of the crab apples that makes me never want to return to 22nd Street. I’m finished with it.
It’s curious to discover where my emotions attach. As often is the case it isn’t where conventional wisdom says they should. My emotions are invested in the ordinary. I don’t require Mt. Rainer or the Grand Canyon to feel alive. My place in Michigan reminds me of my growing-up place in Pennsylvania—they are not landscapes of outsized proportions. They are quiet, built on a smaller scale: the crab apple, not the sequoia. For much of my youth it didn’t occur to me that landscapes could change. I rested innocently in the belief that the crab apples would always be there, along with the fields of corn and alfalfa and the open land along the Lehigh River. These were permanent, I thought. No highway would be built through the fields, no housing developments would destroy the farmland, no one would ever pull down the crab apples.
I don’t remember seeing a single tree fall or be cut down in my youth. I bought this property in Michigan in large part because of the trees. Yet, I gave no real thought to what it means to live among trees. I didn’t think about age or disease or the ravages of storms; I didn’t think about the effects of heavy snow too early in the fall before the trees had shed their leaves or too late in spring; I didn’t think about freezes and drought; I didn’t think about the extensive network of power lines running through our yard; I didn’t think about the erosion of the banks along the river and the instability of roots. I didn’t think I would become a caretaker of trees and require the services of a tree cutter. I didn’t think I would watch as one tree after another had to be brought down or live in a home marked by the stumps of what once was.
When we first moved into our house on the river in the middle of August, one of my first experiences was waking up in our second story bedroom with the glass doors open to the back yard and seeing a group of deer under the crab apple eating the fallen apples. They seemed at home in the yard, part of it. I was living where a crab apple once again anchored my life and invited deer into the yard. Two summers ago when a tree expert assessed the health and state of our trees, he pointed to the crab apple as needing, at the very least, a major pruning. It did sprawl in an unshapely manner, too tall on one side, lopsided on the other, not a neat rounded form. I hadn’t gotten around to the pruning because other more serious tree problems needed attention, or that’s what I told myself. Three fir trees afflicted with needle cast looked fire-scorched. Two were only green at the very top. All the other branches had wizened. And one tree lost all its needles very quickly—it was terrible to behold like someone losing all their hair in an hour. Two trees that had fused together and died on the bank of the river were about to topple over and create a serious blockage for kayaks and canoes. I had to have all four trees taken down in one fell swoop. When they were gone, the yard was transformed, as if it had disrobed. I just couldn’t reconcile myself with the idea that our crab apple had to come down, too. But my hand would eventually be forced.
An early storm in November brought heavy snow before the leaves had fallen. Under the weight, many large limbs broke off or cracked part way and hung painfully from their trunks like a Calder mobile gone terribly wrong. The crab apple, my beauty was hit the worst—perhaps because it hadn’t been properly pruned as I had been advised to do. Three of its largest limbs broke—one fell outright, one was being propped up in a nearby spruce and one hung on by a thin attachment and dangled in the powerlines.
One of the walnut trees leaned so far forward as to be resting on the hot wire running above the power lines.
Sometimes when you look at a landscape every day you don’t notice incremental changes. The walnut had been increasingly leaning and I hadn’t noticed. Had it been upright when we moved in? I couldn’t say. A landscaper said firmly that I had to take down the walnut and the crab apple—they were both messing with the power lines and in addition the crab apple had seen its best days. He said I should call Consumers Energy and my long difficult process of getting someone to bring the trees down began.
I had no idea it wouldn’t be a simple matter. I thought I’d call Consumers Energy, explain the situation, and they’d send someone out.
After being put on hold for twenty minutes and transferred multiple times, I finally succeeded in filing a report about the hot wire and the walnut tree at Consumer Energy. The person who took the information might as well have been a robot–he was so impersonal and never veered from the script. From that encounter I did not believe my problem was going to be seen as an emergency or rise very high on their massive list of priorities. So I was surprised when Consumer Energy sent a tree company they contract with—Wright’s Tree Company– to look at the walnut and the hot wire.
Out of nowhere in the middle of the afternoon two guys showed up in an enormous truck that they had trouble parking on the curve in front of our house, stomped to the back, took a look, and pronounced the walnut and the one nearby, beginning to lean as well, as trees that should come down now. And the crab apple should at least be trimmed out of the power lines. No reprieve for the crab apple.
A special contraption would have to be driven in from the street, probably cutting through our neighbor’s driveway and side yard. Our neighbor would have to give written permission. “It was tricky,” the talkative one said, “to work on a tree resting on a hot wire.” By tricky he meant dangerous. Consumers Energy will do just about anything to avoid shutting down the power, even put the tree cutters’ lives in danger. That’s why they needed this contraption, he said.
I tried to get an idea of what would be involved in taking the trees down—would the contraption driven through the yard destroy everything in its path? Would the trees fall and crush all the shrubs and plantings like my vulnerable Japanese maples? “Oh no,” I was assured. “They’d be careful.” But if I didn’t need to worry about damage, why did I have to sign a waiver that released them from reimbursing me for anything that happened in cutting down the trees? And before they’d do a thing, I had to sign another waiver to release them from cleaning up the mess they made. The trees and anything else that came down or was destroyed would have to be handled by me. Before they got into their truck and roared down the street, they said they’d be back next week. I should have known that promise was said to placate customers, but I didn’t.
Weeks passed and no one called about the trees and no one came. I called another tree cutting business to see if they’d take down the trees. Another two guys pulled into our driveway and left the car motor running while they looked at the trees in question. They shook their heads in unison and said no. They’d cut down the crab apple and haul whatever trees and branches Consumers Energy left in their wake, but they wouldn’t touch those walnuts near the hot wire. That kind of tree work requires special training and licensing, the kind they didn’t have. They got back into their air conditioned car and drove away.
More weeks passed until one Saturday after dinner I was planting ferns in the back under the red bud tree. A strong wind was whipping the branches of all the trees. I stopped planting and looked up at the hot wire not far from where I was working and saw that the wire was sparking and making a hissing sound. And there was smoke. For the first time I felt genuine concern and it was Saturday night, not a good time to try to get Consumers Energy’s attention. They had already sent two separate crews out to look at the trees in the weeks before. They specialized in sending people to fill out reports. Each had assured us something would be done shortly. Nothing was.
I called Consumers Energy again, my third time, was put on hold, read an automated menu of options, none of which fit my situation, and finally picked emergency. Was it an emergency? I’m not sure. Probably not. Then again, I was trying to prevent an emergency. No one cared, the company worked like everything else these days—in crisis mode. I spoke to a lowly operator tasked with taking down information. I gave him my information for the third time and wondered suspiciously why he couldn’t pull up the record of my previous calls on the computer and note that the company had already dispatched two groups for on-site visitations. Why was there no work order on record?
From the call I could glean no sense of what, if anything would follow. And then about an hour later a CE linesman parked in the street in front—he was the same man who had already checked out the situation before. Yet again he got out of the high seat in the carriage of his truck and walked slowly and deliberately in his enormous work boots back to the tree. He confirmed what he had already confirmed, walked back to his truck and put in a call to someone at the central office.
I was beginning to believe I was in a Beckett parody called Waiting for the Tree Cutters and that they would prove as elusive as Godot. I spoke to him of my frustration, looking up at him sitting high in his seat. “It’s not you I’m frustrated with.” He looked at me waiting for the rest. “What’s the point,” I continued “of sending three people out here on three occasions to look at the same tree”? He looked weary. “We’ve been told repeatedly that someone would come out next week and no one comes.” He heard these complaints every day and felt both battered and resigned. Everyone I dealt with had this defeated manner like they were cogs in the machine. They were themselves frustrated but powerless to change the way Consumers Energy did business. I can’t remember his exact words. The gist was that he had had it with being sent out to look at our god-dam tree and he wasn’t going to do it again. They (whoever they were) were going to have to do what they should have done weeks ago, at the start of all of this, and take down the god-dam tree. They, the corporate they, were calling in a crew and they were going to do this thing, this job tonight.
I gasped tonight incredulously. After all this time you’d think I’d be happy to have the deed done, but something didn’t seem right. “It’s already after 8. Why wouldn’t you wait until Monday?”
My husband and I went back inside and waited. At this point we weren’t sure whether we should take this latest claim seriously.
When it was thoroughly dark, around 10:30, the “crew” arrived. The crew consisted of the two guys we had spoken to originally. They weren’t happy. In the best of conditions, taking down the tree would be challenging. How they were going to proceed in the dark was uncertain but they had been ordered to proceed. The contraption that would make the work easier and safer, spoken of at that first meeting, was not available, the talkative one said. “It’s out of the state.” “Was there only one contraption,” I asked. “Yup, just one, and it’s gone.” His partner didn’t talk. He paced back and forth, smoking, and made little eye contact. The tall skinny one did all of the talking for the crew. Someone was on his way to help, he said, leaving from Charlotte.
They waited for the man from Charlotte out by their truck getting their gear ready. It was another hour before they headed into the back yard with flashlights. At one point they believed Consumers Energy was going to turn off the power in this area to minimize the danger while they worked. They didn’t. We turned on our two back lights, which in a wooded area on a river without any street lights, produced scant light.
Finally the third man arrived. He wasn’t an expert in taking down trees; he was a linesman. From midnight to 3 a horror show took place in my back yard. My husband sat on the screened porch watching and then moved outside onto the deck to watch more closely. You’d have to say he is made of tougher stuff. You might also say he isn’t as emotionally invested in the yard. The yard was my domain, my struggle. The short man, who smoked and didn’t talk, walked back and forth under the tree wielding the long pruning hook to catch and cut the branches at the top blackened and singed by the hot wire. This was their first attack and it didn’t go well since he couldn’t see what he was hooking onto. He moved back out of the grass and into the stand of hydrangeas that I had nursed back from last year’s decimation by the deer. He felt it necessary to stand in them and stomp as many as he could. It wasn’t just the reckoning of the hours and dollars I had blown on the yard or the spectacle of that coming to quick ruin, it was also concern over the men and the risk their company was forcing them to take that kept me from easy viewing.
The talkative fellow was the designated tree climber. Earlier on his first visit he had said the tree would be cut down in sections, but that didn’t happen. After the short guy snagged as many branches as he could with his pruning hook, the whole tree came tumbling down, cut at the bottom. The difficulty for the men lay in guiding the tree’s fall away from the power lines which they could hardly see in the dark. This maneuver took ropes and pulleys, triangulating the fall from nearby larger trees. They had to engineer a strategy on the spot—they were undermanned, and under lit. My husband followed their progress. I stayed in the upstairs bedroom and watched the play of the headlamps and flashlights dart across the yard.
Around three, it was over. The men packed up their gear and left—I could hear the trucks depart. My husband came to bed. I didn’t get up to see the wreckage.
The next morning when I looked out from our bedroom’s balcony I cried at the waste they left in their wake. My husband was already out trying to clean some of it up before I saw it. There was hardly any area, any corner that had not been touched. The hydrangea were broken shards; the blackened branches lay in heaps all about; the wide expanse of hosta and ferns were ripped up from the ground and trampled. And then there was the tree itself, fallen across the stone walkway, resting on a wide path of the garden. The honeysuckle shrubs and Japanese maple were maimed—whether in the fall or trying to get the tree down—it hardly matters.
Richard and I cleaned up as much as we could. We couldn’t saw the tree into pieces nor could we lift it. There it sat until the men came to take down the crab apple and clean up the mess as I had arranged so many weeks before.
That Monday after the Saturday night massacre the tree cutters arrived. A crew of six scraggly guys in black t-shirts and baseball caps piled out of the trucks and stomped down the stone path into the back yard with cigarettes dangling from lower lips. So bedraggled and scrawny they might have stepped from the pages of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I thought tree cutters were burly men, but these were wiry scramblers in heavy boots who take risks larger than their size would have you believe.
By 9:05 the crab apple was just a stump with rings to show it had once presided in our yard. Wood chips dusted the grass and nearby flower beds. An assembly line of efficient workers had taken it down: one man wielded a long pruning hook to cut the thinner sprawling branches, another severed the thicker branches closer to the trunk, and one used an electric saw to hack down the trunk itself. Then a guy hauled the branches up through the yard to the street where someone fed them through a chipper. The trunk got cut up into nice even logs and carried to the bank of the river and stacked for firewood next year. Like clockwork the men rubbed the dust on their hands to their pants, ready to move on.