The Magazine

When Good Trees Go Bad

Andrew Ferguson, arbor assassin

Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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We bought our house years ago in deepest autumn, when the towering oak in the backyard had scarcely lost a leaf, and the leaves it had yet to lose were daubed by the lengthening year to a shade of red I’d never seen. The sun passing through them gave the browning grass an unearthly shimmer, as light from a rose window will brighten the shadows in a sanctuary. The house was okay and the neighborhood was good but I think the reason we felt compelled to make an offer was this very thing, this overspreading tree with its power to impose moods on an otherwise unremarkable plot of ground in suburban Virginia. You sign a stack of papers and take possession of a house, and pay taxes and insurance premiums that prove, among other things, it’s yours. But the categories of ownership are too puny for a tree like this one. You don’t buy it or take possession of it, you can only agree to become its caretaker, assume a sacred stewardship.

A tree threatens the house

Michael Sloan

So some people may view my decision to chop it down, rip its ragged limbs from the earth, and grind its root ball to dust as inappropriate.

I can only guess at its age—can only guess at how thick and deep is the accumulation of nature’s genius that I am about to obliterate. Arborists are like pollsters or pundits or professors of social science: Very few of them know what they’re talking about. Over the past 20 years our various phony-baloney experts have placed the age of the tree as low as 100 years and as high as 250, with wild guesses dropped at intervals in between. I prefer a higher figure. At the dawn of the Civil War federal troops clearcut the countryside that rose from the banks of the Potomac and stretched back to what is now our neighborhood, and I like the thought that one of them saved this sapling as the only creature brave enough to lift its head in front of enemy lines.

More touching to me than its link to our nation’s history is its place in my own, in our family’s. Its shade has cooled us in summer, the uppermost branches swaying like ladies’ fans in the sunlight. It was home plate for games of wiffle ball and a provisioner of pillowy leaf piles for tumbling every fall. It stood stark and lovely against white winter skies. We took one of its burly outstretched arms as the crossbeam to hang a rope swing from, with a smooth arc of 40 feet or more. I remember one morning when, from a distance, I watched my daughter, just turning 3, as she lay alone on the hammock and gazed upward, seeming to lose herself among the lacework of branches far above, and my realizing with a sudden chill that whatever thoughts she was thinking now were no longer within a father’s ken.

I see that in rhapsodizing about my tree I haven’t explained why I’m going to kill it.

It will be a preemptive move, following the neoconservative doctrine of Anticipatory Self-Defense—an act undertaken according to Just Arbor-icide Theory, of which the great Niebuhr himself would surely approve. I will kill the tree, I mean, before the tree kills me. Every year men arrive with their pulleys and guy wires and saws to swing among the branches like macaques, removing only the branches they declare desiccated and leaving untouched those that thrive, they say. And then a storm sweeps through and the yard is littered with large chunks of tree, chunks often big enough to bisect a roof if they were torn from the branches that sway ominously above the house.

Over the last few years two nearby siblings of our oak have been felled in acts of God soon after the tree quacks declared them healthy. One tree punctured our living room ceiling on Thanksgiving Day as turkey was being served. The other, on the Fourth of July, crashed down from our neighbor’s yard and thrust a thick limb through our upstairs bathroom, releasing a torrent of glass and splintered wood. When I saw the damage my first response, clowning, was to sing “It Came in Through the Bathroom Window”; my second, chillier, was to reflect that with a bit of bad luck I might have died on the toilet, like Elvis.

From that day forward I eyed my tree differently. Then came the vicious storms of this summer. Two houses in our leafy neighborhood were flattened, destroyed, by the noble oaks that rose beside them like sentries. It was a nice simile, trees like sentries, but it’s one I no longer use. Now my oak takes on a menacing aspect when the skies darken and the wind picks up and I look out through our brittle windows, beneath our matchstick roof. The branches that once were ladies’ fans now look like Uzis being waved at my house by an angry mob. It’s them or me.


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