The Tree Man Cometh

Chapel Hill News logoFebruary 27, 2011

Tree CuttingIf they’ve come through your neighborhood already, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If not, imagine this: The shrill whirr of chain saws and chippers sounds like it’s going on right inside your head. It’s relentless, deafening, coming at you from all directions. Rrrrrrrr. Rrrrrrrr. Grind. Screech. THUMP. A huge piece of trunk hits the ground. My house shakes, quivers, and all the ceiling cracks widen.

Last week three different crews were working at once—one out back beyond our yard, one directly across the street, another a house away, on a one-way lane. My head felt like it was exploding.

Here’s the deal. Duke Power is sending arborist crews all over town to trim limbs that threaten power lines. In some cases they’re downing entire trees. Seems generous, knowing how expensive tree trimming can be.

When a bunch of these guys are in the hood, though, it’s like an invasion of locusts. I’ve been reading about American homesteaders in the Midwest, first-person accounts of the roar of a locust swarm arriving: like the sound of a freight train.

I’ve heard them myself. When I was growing up, we witnessed the 17-year locusts. On the move, that voracious swarm stripped trees, shrubs, hedges, and even bore underground to devour root vegetables. Bob Dylan was in my home town that year to receive an honorary degree from the local university. He wrote a song about it, “Day of the Locust.” One line goes: “Sure was glad to get out of there alive.”

Lucky Bob. He got away. I didn’t. As I went about one of my summer jobs, lawn-mowing, the three-inch bugs came screaming at me, swarmed my face, nicked my cheekbones, and died by the hundreds, pulverized by the power-mower blades. I wanted them gone yet felt like a mass murderer.

The 17-year locusts ate everything. The tree men here are leaving tidy woodpiles on curbs. I’ve been helping myself, loading up my wheelbarrow, before the chippers come by to make mulch of the fine rounds.

We knew they were coming. A few weeks ago, Duke Power left a message hooked on our doorknob, telling us they had targeted trees in our yard for trimming or removal. But so far nothing has happened on our property—even though, as I look around my yard, I see several major offenders. A red oak out front drapes its branches graciously over the power lines. Out back two soaring tulip poplars arch over the little gravel road and all the power lines that feed the few houses beyond.

During hurricanes over the years several cars have taken direct hits in our driveway as one mighty trunk or another keeled over. We’ve had a couple of future casualties removed, at great expense. All this makes the idea of “free” tree removal attractive.

Still, I start to rethink the whole thing. The tree out front offers low perches, from which birds can swoop easily to our feeders. And the trunk gives us dense privacy from our neighbor’s driveway. The poplars are covered all the way to their tops in ivy, which creates lush environs for birds, but eventually will choke the trees. I don’t have the heart or the courage (that area teems with poison ivy) to cut the stuff at the trees’ bases. Maybe the arborists don’t either.

Suddenly I’m hoping the guys go away without pruning any of our limbs or removing any of our trees. I’m feeling protective of my small yard. It has its own little ecology, easily disturbed, complete with animals that need all the shelter they can find. I’m happy to have a windfall of logs, but wary of the trees felled to get them. Then I consider our resident black snake and how happy he’ll be when he yawns awake this year and blinks at his good fortune—a perfect nesting spot in our brand-new stack of wood.

But so many perfect-for-nesting and resting trees have come down these last weeks. I’m enjoying the birdsong, and then I’m thinking about their nests. Are they intact? Are these songs lamentations?

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