I’m watching a death as it happens. A living being is being slain before my eyes as I type this.
The sycamore in front of my house was planted over a century ago by my great-great grandfather, Mathias. He built the family homes, all three, which sit together on the historic National Road in Wheeling. They were Victorians, and they were early suburbanites, moving from the hustle and pollution of South Wheeling to what was known, in 1900, as Pleasant Valley. Hills rolled, and soft green topography must have felt very peaceful. They moved together, parents and grown children and grandchildren, and built three homes on adjoining lots, where they all lived out their days and passed the homes to their children. And their grandchildren. And to me, their great-great granddaughter. I live here now, with the sixth generation, my kids. And my parents live next door, in Mathias’ home.
When the homes were built, each received a sycamore sapling out front. I assume it was Mathias who dug the holes, perhaps not knowing how tall the species lives, or how long it lives, or how unbelievably messy it can be. In every season, the sycamore sheds something. Spikey balls in the spring, bark in the summer, leaves in the fall and winter. The pollen and debris cause an irritation in the throat and eyes when we mow the lawn or sweep the front porch, and the trees have grown so tall that any sun that might reach the rooftop or the front lawn is filtered down to pinpricks, hedging us into our little West Virginia shade holler.
In our adult years, my husband and I have done the yardwork for the three homes. We help my parents out as they find themselves less able to tackle backyard labor. But a tree of one-hundred feet, with a canopy almost as wide sheds a volume of leaves which I’ve never seen the likes of before. They begin to fall in September, continuing almost through New Years, tough, papery shreds of cardboard which make the tractor scream and struggle. The houses are constantly covered in mold, and the gutters clogged to a point at which they must be disassembled for repair.
Shawn and I hate the sycamores. A stunning giant lives above us, or rather, three stunning giants. And yet we hate them for the work they cause us, and the mess. The sycamore is a dirty tree, and not recommended for backyards, ever. They get too tall; they’re too big to prune, and too messy to properly clean up after. And yet, here I’ve lived, for 36 years (on and off) under their shade.
And now I sit and type and watch the death of my particular sycamore. Some time in the last decade, a city project on the road in front of the house required the severing of one of the larger limbs. When this was done, the tree lost vital organs, in a sense, and as the years have passed it began to drop branches, tiny ones at first, and then gradually larger limbs began to die, and fall with their tonnage dangerously close to the house, to my family. A Sword of Damocles, we learned last week that one-half of the sycamore has died. The wood turns gray and carptenter ants and wood wasps swarm around the trunk. A visible root is lifeless, and the tree begins to list towards our house.
Towards our house.
The sycamore is one of the heaviest trees. And the damaged side of the tree faces my home, my bedroom, and Benjamin’s bedroom. If it falls, it will fall on the dead side. Onto my sleeping son, onto my house, and the neighbor’s house, and the townhouses beyond. And though I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and probably have taken the potential disaster far farther than it would ever go, the tree cannot be allowed to stay. The tree surgeons tell us it’s dying. It will have to come down at some point, and should the stars align in a most horrific way, it will come down on its own.
And I fought for the death of this tree. My anxiety, the image of my little sons in little caskets, their bodies crushed under the weight of a behemoth tree, drove me to paranoia and fear. It must come down, I insisted. It must die before it kills us. And though it was the gut reaction of a mom who suffers with a mental disorder, the calm, collected tree surgeons concurred: it must indeed come down before it hurts someone. Kill or be killed. It’s on its way out,” they said.
The tree people knew. Every tree person said the same thing. It’s dying. Though I said it from a place of fear and hysteria, the facts remained. This sycamore tree will be dead soon. It will cease to plant its feet in the earth, cease to shade the house and drops its obnoxious cardboard leaves. It will die today, or tomorrow, or ten years from now, but it will die.
The tree guys have left for the day. Parked their cherry picker in my front yard and drove off, leaving a pile of freshly cut wood. Some of the branches are dead. Most of the branches are dead. The living bits remain on the tree. It looks like the site of a massacre, like body parts. And as I sit on a fresh stump, a chunk of some branch that towered over my head a few hours ago, I ask myself, “What have I done?”
That’s my anxiety, my OCD talking. As I sit and stare at the pile of detritus, the tree still rises up above me, presenting its dead south side. Carpenter ants run up and down the length of the trunk, and wood wasps pick at the cracked, dried flesh. But still, I place my hand on the cutting in front of me, a stump perfect for a campfire seat. I’ve read about the spirits of plants. Devas who have spoken to humans about the natural world. I wonder if they’ll speak to me, but of course, they do not, and I feel nothing but smooth, dusty bark under my hands. If the tree is suffering, or if it is afraid, I am not the human to recognize that. I am not blessed with understanding. All around me I sense sadness, but I know full well that it is only my own guilt.
Tonight the tree will stand as it always has, awaiting its execution tomorrow. My gut, my heart, are wrenched.