They Fall Down

Chapel Hill News logoApril 20, 2011

Last week I woke up to that dreaded sound – like a train roaring through the back yard heading straight for the house. My husband stirred. “What in the world?” he said sleepily.

“We’ve got to get downstairs,” I said, jumping out of bed and running into our narrow hallway. He was right behind me. As we turned the corner to start down into the basement, the house went completely dark. The power – out.

We lay on couches in our dim basement and listened as the wind howled and limbs tore. If a tree cuts through the roof, I thought, at least we have a half-attic and a first floor between us and the trunk.

I wasn’t being overly dramatic. A huge oak from across the street had crashed onto our driveway during Hurricane Fran, tearing the gutters off the house and crushing two cars. On the next street over, a large tree fell through the roof and almost killed our friends as they slept.

A heavy rain a few years later uprooted another oak that fell across our back area, totaling another car. Later still we discovered that tree roots had grown into our sewer system, collapsing the piping under our house. The cement cellar floor had to be jackhammered, new pipes installed.

After that we took a good hard look at the towering trees close to our house and decided to remove two of them. The arborist who did the work told me that the remaining trees out front, the regal poplars and oaks, were what he called “butter knife trees.” Gazing up at them and straightening his visor he said, “Yup. If those come down, they’ll go through your house like a knife through butter. They’ll build up some speed on their way down and BAM!”

In my last column I wrote about tree men coming through the neighborhood earlier this year and cutting branches and entire trees that threatened the power lines. As my husband and I huddled in the blackened basement against this most recent storm, we decided that clearly the guys had missed a few. We heard sharp snaps and felt the earth shake as wood hit the ground.

Finally dawn came and the savage wind and rain stopped. All our trees had survived but the power was out.

I talked that morning with the parents gathered on the street with their children, waiting for the school bus. Our neighbors on both sides had power but houses across the street didn’t. As we chatted we hauled some large branches off the road so that the school bus could get through.

Our next-door neighbor told us that two trees in his back yard had snapped halfway up, throwing limbs all over his yard and, it turned out, ours. He had wondered earlier why the tree men hadn’t trimmed or removed those leaning candidates – probably because they weren’t directly threatening power lines, just a small one-story house with a young couple and their two small children inside. Luckily they were all OK. Around the corner, though, a big oak had butter-knifed right into a recently-renovated second story dormer.

When Duke Power called 10 hours later to let us know our electricity had been restored, an automated voice reported that our outage was the result of a felled tree and that 114 houses had been affected.

Sometimes I admire what the celebrity Mr. T did on his palatial suburban estate North of Chicago. Despite his neighbor’s protests, he had all the trees taken down, dozens of them, because, he said, they exacerbated his asthma. I love trees but as they green up, rustle in the spring breeze, and offer cooling shade over our house, I can’t help but think – giant butter knives.