Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Tree Killers

By Madeleine Kando

My husband and I live in a quiet part of a suburban town in Massachusetts. Many moons ago, as two young immigrants from Northern Europe, we didn’t know where the wind would blow us. We could have ended up in Iowa or Texas, but we lucked out and settled in New England.

If there is one adjective to describe this part of the country, I would vote for the word ‘green’. The further up you go, traveling through New Hampshire or Vermont towards the Canadian border, you enter The Great North Woods, also known as the Northern Forest. It is spread across four northeastern states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York and collectively covers 26 million acres, about the size of Holland, Belgium and Denmark combined.

But here it is equally green. Our property is nothing special, a little piece of land, about an acre, including a very modest ranch house. But at this time of year, our yard is bursting with life. An amazing array of birds, gold finches, chickadees, bright red cardinals and noisy blue birds all flock to our bird feeders, patiently waiting their turn to feed.

Many little creatures share our property. Chipmunks race back and forth, their cheeks stuffed with treasures, grey squirrels chase each other for fun or love, jack rabbits munch on clover, their jaws working overtime, and we see the occasional fox or deer come by to pay us an early morning visit.

There are Norwegian maples, lilac trees and dogwoods growing out of the unusually tall grass, since we don’t believe in giving our lawn a crew cut. But what I cherish the most, are the majestic white pines that have lived here for much longer than any of us. New England is the opposite of the vast expanses of the prairies of the mid west. Here, trees are king and the king of kings is the white pine.

Also known as Pinus strobus, white pines can easily reach 300 years in age, and at least one specimen has been recorded as 450 years old. That means that these giants were already in their 50s when the Pilgrims established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629.

The Indian tribes of Massachusetts, the Mohicans, the Massachusetts, the Wanponoags, they all sat around the fire and built their teepees under one of those great whites, the same ones that I love looking at, early in the morning. Cranking my neck to see the clouds float by above their tops, I marvel at their size, their rough bark and the huge amount of pine needles they shed to create a soft ocher colored carpet underfoot.

Witnessing the Death of a Tree

We have new neighbors and in their wake came the tree killers. They came without warning shots. No courteous knock on our door to tell us what was about to happen. Like a battalion on a Napoleonic battlefield, they charged over the hill, their bayonets drawn.

A huge white truck backed up on our neighbors' lawn, followed by one of those monstrous wood shredders that look like dinosaurs on wheels, one end gobbling up a 150 foot tree, digesting it and spitting it out at the other end as wood chips. The truck contained the tree killers. One was the crew leader, the one that goes up in the aerial lift to start the cutting at the top, the others were the muscled ‘grounds men’, whose job it is to cut the carcass into manageable sizes.

One of the victims was a multi-trunked ‘wolf pine’. This one had probably been standing there before the area was filled with ranch houses, when our town was still mostly farmland. Wolf pines look ominous, straight out of an Arthur Rackham illustration. It is the white pine’s way of dealing with ‘weevils’, nasty little beetles that lay their eggs in the terminal bud, the ‘leader’ of young pines. When they hatch they kill the leader, forcing a secondary branch to become the leader. If this attack happens several times, you get this amazing multi-trunked structure to form a massive base. On a walk in a New England forest, you encounter many wolf pines. They look like giant, multi-armed wrestlers. It takes 3 adults or more to hug one, arms stretched out.

The killing was a noisy, dusty, messy affair. The killers loudly called out to each other over the roaring of the chipper, instructing each other to throw ropes over the crotch of the tree, holding enormous, half cut branches steady until the final cut. Our neighbors had summoned their extended family to watch the show. They brought out lawn chairs, beer cans and chips. They used to do that in the Middle Ages you know, gather on the town square to watch hangings. For fun.

I heard them chatter in Hindi, laughing as 4 or 5 trees white pines fell to their death, 200 year old trees bothering no one, asking for nothing, giving shelter to numerous creatures. Gone, from one moment to the next. Why? I asked my new neighbors that question. Why? They were afraid they would slip on the pine needles, they said.

Tears welled up in my eyes. A deep sense of guilt washed over me, like a tsunami. I wanted to apologize to the squirrels, the ants, the woodpeckers, the eagles, the grubs, even the nasty little weevils. Apologize on behalf of my species, for destroying an entire ecosystem, just because my species can.

Now, we are left with big holes around our property. The pine needles are still there of course. They didn’t bother to rake those. We are learning a lot about shrubs and evergreens that would tolerate acidic soil. We are trying to find something positive in this carnage. Get over it, I hear you say. They are just 4 or 5 trees. What about the millions of trees that are cut, slashed and burnt every second around the world as we speak?

But these were MY trees. Not in a legal sense, of course. They were my neighbors’ trees, although I wish there were a law that designated every bloody tree on earth as a ‘common good’.

Today we went out and bought 4 small white pine seedlings. We will plant them where the tree killers left gaping holes between our properties and in a few years, since white pines grow 4 or 5 feet a year, they will grow to be as tall and majestic as the ones that our neighbors so carelessly and ignorantly destroyed. The pine needles will cover their lawn and there wil be nothing they can do about it. Revenge is sweet! leave comment here