ROOTING FOR THE TREES

The dark clouds appeared suddenly from the north last Saturday night. The winds, gusting to sixty miles per hour, followed soon after. Through the gathering darkness, I could see the wind whipping the long limbs of the three ancient Chinese elm trees at the back of our house. They kept whip-sawing them to the breaking point. At the same time, what seemed like torrents of rain were pounding on the windows which face to the north. This was the second big windstorm in a week. The first one had ripped a thirty-foot branch from one of the elms that stand directly outside the back door. It still hadn't been moved. Now it was hanging down at a grotesque angle, blowing back and forth with the wind. Christina The Lawyer motioned me to the back of the house, where we stood at the windows peering out. We were rooting for our trees to survive. The house lights flickered. Then they all went out at once. The television set went dark, catching the late Gary Cooper in midsentence in a 1938 movie. The air conditioner's motor died. In an instant, it was all dark and silent. Ramble, our 95-pound golden retriever, edged closer. Ramble's really not afraid of the dark. It's lightning and wind that make him anxious. Now, we were worried this new storm might do even more damage to the same trees. It's funny how you grow to feel about trees after you've lived with them awhile. You learn to appreciate the protection that they give you from the sun. You begin to think your house wouldn't be the same without them. And it wouldn't. The elms in our backyard all stand more than thirty feet high. Long ago, they were planted by people who knew much more about trees than I'll ever know. They were planted in a triangle and as a result, in full growth, they form an enormous canopy that shelters the entire rear end of the house from the sun. They have become an essential component of what is our vision of the house. Lose these trees and the entire place loses some of its charm. It's this view of the trees on our part that turns every storm into a high-stakes game. And so now we stood watching anxiously as the storm continued to batter them. There was nothing to do but watch and root for the trees to survive the wind's heavy pounding. Then it happened. We didn't hear the limb crack. What we heard was a soft thud and then a rustling of leaves as the limb hit the roof just above where we were standing. I went for a flashlight. I held it to the window, but all I could see in the darkness was the reflection of the flashlight beam. We stood there waiting in the dark for what seemed like a long time as the storm blew itself out. The lights and the air conditioner came back on. They hadn't been off more than half an hour. We were luckier than many other people in Phoenix. We lost still another big branch. But it wasn't a fatal blow. Some people suffered severe damage to their homes in the same storm. I have spent most of my life living in rented apartments in big cities. Weather never concerned me directly. Any damage that hurricanes, tornadoes or blizzards could do was something the landlord always handled. Now, it's different. There are times when I feel under siege, not only by the rare windstorms, but also by local government. Our first house in Phoenix was small, but we planted eleven trees in the backyard. The trees were just getting to the point where they would provide shade when the state decided we were obstructing the path of the Papago Expressway. Reluctantly, we sold the house to the state. We moved across town to this big old house, which we have now owned for six years. But now the City of Phoenix has taken away part of our front yard. The full-employment policy of the city street department decreed that it widen Thomas Road. I don't know of a single citizen who cried out for the widening of Thomas Road. Not a single automobile owner has ever come to me and told me that Thomas Road was too narrow. Only the people who run the street department and hire the contractors thought it was too narrow. So now they are engaged in still another of their multimillion dollar street-widening projects. So these days, the front of our house is like a battle zone. The workers have already brought in the heavy equipment to remove the oleanders that were 25 feet high and sometimes made us forget that Thomas Road was even out there. In place of the oleanders, there is a temporary cyclone fence. The cyclone fence is covered with a green screen to give us a degree of privacy. And now the workers are building a block wall to replace the oleanders. The block wall will run the length of the road when it's completed. It will turn what was once a charming and idiosyncratic front yard into a place that has been "Gosnellized." It will have about as much charm as McCormick Ranch or the Pointe at South Mountain. The wall will no doubt become an oversized drawing board for the graffiti enthusiasts who attend North High School. They can do what they will. I have promised myself never to look upon that side of the wall once it's finished. Early Sunday morning, I go out to look at the damage. There is a lot of debris. But there is nothing serious other than the fallen branch. I would gladly go into the toolshed and get the equipment to cut up the fallen limb but the branch has fallen over the door and blocked it. The men from the tree company know more about this kind of thing than I do, anyway. I walk out to the front door where Christina The Lawyer is hosing down what the workers have left of the circular driveway. There was no storm damage at the front. In fact, things are looking up. I see that the construction crews have removed their portable toilet and heavy trucks from the front yard, where they have been parked regularly for the past three weeks. "I guess we got off easy," I say to Christina. "Not so fast," Christina says, laconically. "I tried to start the car to clear the driveway. The battery's dead." It's funny how you grow to feel about trees after you've lived with them awhile. I don't know of a single citizen who cried out for the widening of Thomas Road.

 
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