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View from My Back Steps

By John I. Blair


Gardening by proxy can be a very frustrating occupation, but there comes a time when thatís how one does it. And at 80 years old, Iíve reached that time. I once had a big and ambitious flower garden surrounding my house, filled with annuals, perennials, bulbs, shrubs, vines and trees. A network of brick paths connected most points of the garden and there were three sitting areas where I and others could relax and enjoy the changing seasons. And Iíd done all of that pretty much by myself with some help from my then young son.

But that was years ago, when I was in my 40s, 50s, and 60s. Now Iím 80 and lucky to still be able to toddle around with my cane, much less dig flower beds, squat or kneel to plant and trim and weed, or whack back encroaching vegetation. So the garden has pretty much ďgone wildĒ on me, with the paths and patios being maintained only through the intercession of a hired yard man and the flowers surviving mostly in a small assemblage of terracotta pots up by the back door where I can reach them to water and trim.

Donít get me wrong Ė this kind of gardening also brings pleasure, though mostly of the standing and looking kind. I still see the seasons changing, watch the birds flocking to feeders and squirrels scampering about in the treetops (and sitting on my kitchen window ledge to eat sunflower seeds from feeders). Itís a contemplative garden where the exercise is mostly mental.

However, sometimes mental just doesnít cut it. Literally. A couple of plum trees, one planted 30 years ago, the other a volunteer from the fruit of the first, both died fairly recently. And have been standing out there in the center of the yard, of use primarily to woodpeckers for pecking and squirrels as a shortcut from taller nearby trees to the house. Something needed to be done; and I was quite sure it wasnít going to be done by me.

Photo of the bottom part of the trunk on the larger plum tree, before it had completely died.

Fortunately my yard man also is an experienced tree trimmer. So he offered me a package deal on the two dead trees and I took him up on the offer.

A couple of weeks ago he showed up (by appointment) with equipment and a friend to help with the cleanup work. Mind you, these werenít little fruit orchard trees Ė the older, larger one was 25 feet tall and leaning against my power line that runs from the back of the yard. A potentially tricky situation. And one I wasnít sure I really wanted to watch while it was being done. So I chickened out (chickens always get the short end of the stick in figures of speech, including this one) and decided to just sit at my desk and not look. Just listen.

Iím not a novice at having trees removed. In the 35 years Iíve lived here in this woodsy neighborhood Iíve had three full-sized shade trees plus chunks of a couple of others removed. Those jobs involved a virtual circus act, with long, tensioned cables, men in harnesses dangling from upper limbs, tightly coordinated teamwork and genuinely scary possibilities. In one case half a 90-foot-tall elm had fallen into my yard and was resting on my chimney and roof edge. In two others an equally large ash tree had fallen on my car in the driveway. Yes, that happened twice, with two different cars. Some folk are slow learners. The two plum trees were not likely to provide anything like that level of anxiety. But on the other hand my anxiety resilience isnít what it used to be.

So I sat at my desk, determinedly looking at my computer screen and not out the kitchen window down the hallway. But listening.

Thirty minutes of more or less continuous chainsaw racket without any shouts (from the yard man) or screams (from his female assistant) and then there was a relatively low-key CRACK, CRUNCH. And the tree was down. (The bigger tree.) At that point I figured it was safe to go look.

At first glance it was hard to tell there had ever been two largish trees in the center of my garden. There was just a small tangle of tree pieces, rapidly being cut up for disposal. I had asked that the tree debris be chopped small and tossed under the huge hedge on the side of the yard where, hopefully, they would decay into new soil rather than being hauled off and wasted in the gigantic landfill on the edge of town. And so it was. By sunset, aside from a few bruised and broken goldenrod stalks, I couldnít tell there had ever been a pair of plum trees in my yard. Sad, but also happy. They had lived full tree lives and had gone to an honorable resting place.

The yard man was also happy Ė no injuries and cash payment for work well done.

And now I can, for the first time in more than five years, look out into the garden and not have the centerpiece be a pair of large dead trees. Bad news for the woodpeckers (and squirrels). But theyíll find other places to feed and climb. And all of them are regulars at my feeder stations anyway.

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