The chainsaw ripped through gauzy sleep. 7:03, and I couldn’t recall anyone murdering the Saturday morning peace this early or this loudly.
Weekdays were often ravaged by the sounds of tearing down and building up and out, by sanders and nail guns, saws and drills. Aluminum ladders expanding and contracting. Grumbling motors and idling trucks. The incessant noise often made the newspaper column I worked on in my makeshift home office a mere aspiration. Home improvement in mid-Cambridge never stopped for long. There was always another kitchen upgrade to granite and stainless steel taking place, another open-plan family room addition coming into being, a top-of-the-line Toto toilet going in. There seemed to be endless ways and endless means to reclaim and improve the turn of the century frame houses and multi-family dwellings on our block, but rehabilitation usually paused on weekend mornings.
The chainsaw snarled. Stopped. Started up again. I rose from the soft warmth of the bed, my feet shocked by the mid-October chill of the floorboards. From the window I saw Bernice, from two houses down, standing at her backyard fence, her hands on her floral, house-coated hips, and I could tell that she was shouting at the man in the bucket of the cherry picker that was high up in the huge, bottle brush arms of the magnificent pine tree that grew in the yard between our two small green refuges. The silenced chainsaw dangled from his hands. I couldn’t hear what Bernice was saying, and the only noise was the percussion of my own heart. The tree, twice the height of our building, had a wound, raw and pale, where a limb had shaded two backyard plots the last time I looked.
As I raised the window, I saw Bernice kick off her slippers and climb the chain link that marked the line between what was hers and what now belonged to our new neighbors, the Morleys. Bernice’s housecoat snagged on the top of the fence as she went over, but undeterred, she snatched it free and landed, her feet in white ankle socks, in the Morleys’ yard. Her gray hair was standing up on top and mashed in back.
“Just what in God’s name do you think you’re doing?” she yelled.
The response came not from up high, but from a hard-hatted man on the ground. He took off the headphones protecting his ears and approached her. “Maham,” he said, the polite word at odds with his harsh, dismissive tone, “you need to keep back.”
Bernice’s fury lit her face. She stayed put.
“Lady, he said more loudly, taking a step toward her, “for your own safety, return to your yard.”
Bernice reached out to him, her palms upturned. “You can’t just cut down our tree. There must be some mistake.”
I could hear the irritated amusement in his voice as he said, “Look, lady, we’re just doing what we’re paid to do. Don’t yell at us for taking it down.” [End Page 35]
“But . . . but what will these people,” Bernice said, gesturing toward the Morleys’ house, “these people who just bought this house, what will they have to say about it?”
The man tilted his head back and laughed, and then began to walk away with what looked to me like a swagger. “Who do you think hired us?”
I felt my son Nathan’s shoulder leaning against mine. “What are they doing to Anthony?” he whispered, using the name he had given the tree, four years earlier, with the nine-year-old exuberance that had since given way to teenage nonchalance. It was hard to break through his remoteness these days, but he was unguarded and distressed now. And I couldn’t remember when he had last called the tree by name. I closed the window and tried to steer him to the kitchen. “Why don’t we go make some breakfast?” I said, “Pancakes, cornbread, cheese grits. . .” But he pulled away from my grasp, informing me that I didn’t need to protect him from “everything real.”
We got dressed and went out to our back porch to watch, awed by the tree’s majesty, besieged. By the small man in its enormous branches, machining it down. Bernice had retreated to the fence line and Heaney was reaching out his arms to help her back over the fence.
Soon, she had the company of neighbors gathered in puzzlement, outrage, curiosity. I saw Jared and Rebecca, from around the block; their yard abutted ours. And Heaney, whose narrow, clapboard house stood next to Bernice’s. I heard the back door of our building slam and saw our landlord, Katrina, join them.
“Shouldn’t we go down there?” Nathan asked.
Should we? Something was keeping me from going. “I think I prefer to watch from here.”
As the chainsaw paused, everyone stood silent.
“Where are they, the Morleys?” asked Joyce as she joined the others. She had bought the newly constructed single-family across the street that had a greenhouse, a pergola, and a hot tub out back. Her only words to me in the two years since she had moved in were to tell me not to park so close to her driveway that I made it hard for her to back out.
“Good question!” shouted Bernice. “Can’t they come out here and face us while it’s being done? I knocked on their door, but they didn’t answer.”
“Maybe something’s wrong with it,” Heaney said. “Fungus. Blight. Maybe they’re just trimming off the unhealthy branches. Maybe that’s the whole reason, maybe that’s why.”
The man in the cherry picker started cutting again, and we watched three more of the smaller limbs crash to the ground. And everyone gaped as he began to attach a sling to one of the main branches, this one as thick as a trash barrel, and to hook the sling to a crane. The sawing revved and slowed, but did not stop until he had severed the limb [End Page 36] from the trunk, and then the crane lowered it to ten feet off the ground, and dropped it. We felt the boom in our feet.
“Can they just cut it down? Can they? Without even being here?” Bernice was now in tears.
Jared, a lawyer at a corporate Boston firm answered. “Bottom line: it’s their tree. If it’s on their property, it belongs to them, and they can decide what to do with it. That’s the law.”
Katrina looked at him and started shouting, “This is the People’s Republic of Cambridge, and you can’t just do that without even telling everyone else who loves that tree. You can’t just. . .”
The saw resumed, drowning out the rest.
Come on, Nathan,” I said gently, “let’s at least take a break. It’ll probably take all day to get it down.” He reluctantly followed me to our galley kitchen and we made cornbread in my mother’s cast iron skillet.
“Who are they, Mom, the new people next door?” he asked while we waited for the cornbread to bake.
I told him the little I knew. Rob Morley had patented some kind of software and made a killing in the tech boom, enough to retire in his thirties. Jennifer worked in consulting, whatever that meant. I heard they had paid cash for the house, and in this part of town, that meant something in the neighborhood of a million, whatever the state of the interior.
Gutting the old homes and making them over to your liking was the thing to do. I had taken Nathan to a couple of birthday parties and playdates at houses that left me with a sudden feeling of destitution, careening between resentment and longing. “Let me give you a tour,” one mother had said with bored civility as she led us through her glass-walled addition, her kitchen of travertine marble and stainless steel, and her color-coordinated, decorator-rendered living room, pointing out the things she and the husband who worked in “finance” had changed, noting the former, dated features with which they could not bear to live. Quarter-sawn cherry for the vestibule. Bluestone for the patio out back. For the most part, the kids of color in Nathan’s class lived as we did, if they were so lucky, and mostly, those were the ones he invited over to our place.
“You think they hate trees?” Nathan asked. Hate? That was a big emotion, I thought, and anyway, who hates trees?
“I doubt it, honey. Maybe they’re just . . . indifferent.”
“Then why would they take the trouble to cut it down?
Good question. “Maybe this tree doesn’t mean anything much to them, and they never thought about how long it’s been here, and what it means to everyone else.”
“You mean they’re ‘doing them.’”
I looked at him blankly.
“You know, when you’re looking out for yourself: ‘I’m doing me.’”
That was probably right, I thought. It was as old a story as there was, and it was not against the law. But maybe indifference and blindness were their own, everyday crimes. [End Page 37]
Each morning, spring through fall, Bernice took her coffee mug out to her backyard and sought the succor of her thick, verdant yard to begin the day. For forty years she had lived in her modest, blue-shingled house with her Walter, who had died last year, raising their three children on a teacher’s and a loan officer’s salary. She faced the remaining years in that house alone, and that tree had been a constant. She had never failed to step from the threshold of her back door onto soft pine needles that hushed her steps, inhaling its redolence and finding the shelter of the pine that transformed her little square of city earth into woodland green. I was worked up at what would be missing from the view at my writing desk, but Bernice must be feeling a different order of grief.
Bernice’s kindness, offered through conversation and homemade sweets and shared gardening secrets, had helped to relax the knot of wariness I brought to most of my encounters with Boston area whites. I had been a child during “forced busing,” Boston’s lowest point, and I doubted I would ever get that taste out of my mouth. I still searched the faces of older white folks on the train, on the street, wondering if they had spit in the faces of black children, or thrown rocks and taught their kids to do the same. In my experience, neighborhood, territory, was everything, for good and bad. People stood with our own.
As we got the cornbread from the oven and sat down to eat, I thought about my current neighbors, the “everyone else” who had come to stand with Bernice. Jared and Rebecca had moved in around the block two years ago and restored their Victorian to historical perfection, down to the hand-milled doors and the brass and crystal doorknobs, I had heard. I had never been inside their home, but I could glimpse the interior splendor of its coffered ceilings and fireplaces through their back windows. Michael Heaney, who was just Heaney to everyone on the block, was a retired firefighter, and he had grown up in the house where he still lived. And Katrina, an MIT anthropology professor, had bought her two-family twenty years ago, before property values skyrocketed, and lived on the second floor while leasing the first to us.
We would never be able to buy in any part of Cambridge, and we could barely afford to rent. Five years ago we had moved from our three-bedroom Dorchester apartment, in pursuit of better schools for Nathan. I had given up my cherished study, and my desk and bookshelves now occupied the dining room, which also held the little cast-off table from my mother where we ate. When Nathan had first commented on how small his new bedroom, which was actually a nook, was, I had told him he was lucky not to be sleeping on the sofa.
These other onlookers owned their homes. My son and I were merely tenants, and ours were the only black faces on the block. Cambridge is so diverse. That’s what people say, and they love saying it, too. Until 1995, it was rent controlled, but I don’t know how integrated it can be these days, when a two-bedroom apartment, loosely defined, rents for $3000 a month. Most of the city’s black diversity, which in fact, doesn’t even amount to 12% of the population, is either contained in East Cambridge’s Area 4, where some blacks have been rooted for decades; or scattered between Central Square and the river; or stacked in the grim high rise projects of North Cambridge on Rindge Avenue. In the coveted neighborhoods, there is nary a black body, and the ones you see are merely passing through.
“We should have a protest.” Nathan’s voice was quiet, but fierce. “A demonstration, a sit-in.” We had just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and his activist spirit had awakened as he followed the Occupy movement, challenges to New [End Page 38] York’s stop and frisk law, what “Stand Your Ground” had meant for Trayvon Martin, and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. I got up and put my arms around his shoulders and squeezed him tight, wishing I could protect him from the world into which he was moving.
When we returned to the back porch, everyone was still out there watching as the hardhatted men fed branches into a chipper. Maybe they stayed out of loyalty to Bernice and Anthony, or maybe it was the morbid curiosity that keeps you at a car accident, savoring the awful truth.
Katrina announced that she couldn’t stand to watch any longer, and soon everyone else drifted off, all except Bernice, who shouted that she wasn’t leaving, she would be a witness to the bitter end.
“They’re tree killers,” Nathan said as he stood up to go back inside, “that’s what they are.”
It would take two days of sawing to completely remove Anthony. The first day they had finished the dismembering. As we sat on our back porch that evening, savoring the fleeting autumn warmth, we couldn’t help but see the soaring, helpless torso, covered with what looked like open sores. Mayhem, I thought, remembering the catalog of offenses I had learned about on the crime beat at one of my first newspaper jobs: capital crimes, felonies, misdemeanors; serious and lesser crimes. “Let’s turn our chairs and look this way,” I said, and we shifted toward the maple and elm whose red and yellow leaves had begun to fall. But both of us kept glancing over our shoulders at Anthony. I wondered if the tree felt its own kind of sorrow, if its missing limbs had a phantom ache.
“What will happen to the owl?”
“It will find another home,” I said. Since buying Nathan an Audubon field guide two years before, we had seen a white-winged crossbill. A white-breasted nuthatch and a pileated woodpecker. Black-capped chickadees and pine warblers. Common grackles and nuthatches. All of them ate pine seeds. And most exciting of all had been the barred owl, which needed large trees for breeding and roosting, to whose cry, Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? we had listened raptly. It was my job to reassure Nathan, but I wondered what would happen to all of the birds that had depended on the Eastern White Pine for sustenance.
“You know you can tell how old it is by counting the rings?” he asked. “I wonder if we could count them when they cut down the trunk, before they take it away or chew it up.”
“Maybe so. Bernice said it’s over 200 years old.”
On Monday, the chainsaws returned, and I stood on the back porch and watched them take down the trunk while Nathan was at school. Bernice stayed inside, her shades drawn. [End Page 39] I saw the top section cut and lifted away by crane, and I stood there as the naked torso was reduced in stages. The last step was to bring in a digger to remove the stump and roots. I watched this final part with a glass of scotch in hand, thinking of how my mother had liked to justify an afternoon drink with, “It’s six o’clock somewhere in the world.” She had been a scotch lover, and not the single malt kind. “Blended is just fine with me,” she used to say, “I like its bite.” And Johnny Walker Red was her favorite. She had been a tree lover, too.
Down in North Carolina, where we spent six weeks each summer of my childhood with her parents, trees had been revered. My grandma used to take me around their land, pointing them out to me. This one’s a black walnut and this one’s a hackberry and this one’s a Seckel pear. She would test me sometimes on the wisdom she had imparted the summer before, making sure I knew which ones gave which medicine, which ones bore the sweetest fruit. And she always pointed out the ash tree my mother had loved to climb. But there was an oak that would strike her silent as we passed, and I had to get the story of that one from Grandpa.
He had sat with me on their porch swing, and explained. “Well, I guess you’re old enough to hear this story. That live oak’s a lynching tree. Your grandma’s uncle Roderick was kilt right there, back in 1920, when she was just a little girl, after their family had the audacity to start owning this property. Your grandma’s never really talked about it since she told me, back when we were courting, which seems like a millennium ago. ‘You want me to cut it down?’ I asked her years later, when we were living here, and she shook her head. ‘I don’t want it to simply disappear,’ she said. ‘I can’t hardly stand to look at it, or talk about it, but it’s a witness. A living witness to the way things were.’”
“Trees are something,” Grandpa then said, and he told me about the oak Paul Laurence Dunbar had memorialized in a poem. It was true, Grandpa said, the story of a tree whose branch, after being used for a lynching, just yellowed, died, and fell right off, while the rest of the tree kept on growing. “It would not be part of people’s evil,” Grandpa said. “Refused to participate, is all. Maybe a tree can sense what it’s been used for, and take a stand.”
I was thirteen that summer, and thought myself nearly grown. But I had no response that would come without tears, and I had no intention of crying in front of anyone, not even Grandpa. He got the porch swing moving with his feet, and looking out over the land, he said, “Just imagine all the things these trees have seen.”
As I watched his trunk disappear, I thought about the world of things that might have happened as Anthony stood by.
The next day, when I saw Bernice out front, I went over to see if she had found out anything about why the tree had been cut down, and to tell her we were upset about it, too. She told me how she, Katrina, and Heaney had knocked on the door of the Morleys, who had been at their house on the Cape. Turned out there had been nothing wrong with the tree, no fungus, no blight. Bernice shook her head resignedly. The Morleys had seemed completely unaware that they had done anything significant at all. They didn’t get what the fuss was about.
When I told Nathan what Bernice had said as he left for school the next morning, he asked, “Mom, you’re going to talk to them, too, aren’t you?”
I hugged him and reiterated our evening plans, avoiding his question and the worry that haunted me each time he left the safety of our home. He gave me a vague smile and pulled away. [End Page 40]
I couldn’t seem to escape my unsettled fog of sadness. Soon it would be getting cold, Boston cold, and I would not have the tree’s reminder of life to see me through the barren winter. I was left with thin, October light where dappled shadow once screened the window at my desk, along with the backside of Jared and Rebecca’s fabulous house. But stray needles remained in the cracks between sidewalk bricks, and I was haunted by the elemental, cleansing scent of pine.
“I’m starting to worry about you,” my occasional bedmate said. “Come on. Move on,” she whispered, pulling me back to horizontal oblivion, “it’s just a tree.”
No trace of it remains. When the digger and backhoe came to remove the stump, they took all of the remaining vegetation from the Morleys’ yard, as well. And then our new neighbors brought in dump truck loads of new soil and built a brand new, top-of-the-line wood privacy fence.
While I was not moving on, I went online to see what else I could find out about pinus strobus. I learned that they are reasonably tolerant of fire, and that their pinecones retract their shingles to release their seeds, every three to five years, and the wind does the rest. I learned that they’ve been used to make cradles, cabinets, paper, matches, door frames, and boats. And coffins, too. Mixed with grease, the sap is a sealant for canoes. The needles have five times the Vitamin C of lemons, and make an herbal tea. The resin is used for dandruff shampoos, and turpentine, and cough medicine, and is an antibiotic, and a salve for healing sores and wounds. It draws out splinters, sties, and pimples; soothes burns, hemorrhoids, and itchy bites; and even cures poison ivy.
The Haudenosaunee, known as Iroquois, called their Algonquin neighbors “Adirondack,” meaning “tree eater,” because they dried the soft, inner bark for food during winter scarcity. The Ojibwa stewed the cones. And the sweetest thing I found was the story of how the five tribes of the Iroquois League buried their weapons beneath an Eastern White Pine in 1570, symbolizing their accord and the ending of their fierce tribal battles. The five needles of the tree symbolized their union into one nation, and this peaceful, democratic confederacy was an inspiration for the transformation of thirteen separate colonies into the United States. The Iroquois called it the Tree of Peace.
I was excited to share what I had learned with Nathan, but he was more focused on when either I, or we, were going to talk to the Morleys.
“The tree is gone, Nathan,” I said. “And nothing I can say will bring it back. Plus, tree killing’s not really on the books as an unlawful act.”
He answered quietly. “Seems like you’re not over it, even if it’s gone. You’re sad, Mom. Obsessed, even. Look at you, spending all that time mourning and doing research about the tree. And the Morleys, they’re just doing them, and they don’t even have to think about it if they don’t want to. But maybe at least you can make them see how we feel.”
I was silent.
His eyes narrowed and he looked at me hard. “Well, aren’t people accountable? Isn’t that what you’re always saying?”
I tried to explain myself with as much dignity as possible. I tried to make him understand that I wasn’t really sure whether, as mere tenants, as borrowers of space for a designated term, we had any real rights to decide, or object, or even weigh in on what people did with their property. “We’re renters, not owners,” I said, my face flushing. [End Page 41]
He stared at me. “You can still say something, can’t you? It doesn’t take money or pull for that.”
I turned away, stung, barely able to respond. “Hurry up or you’ll be late for school,” I managed to say as I returned to my desk.
It had been a week and a half since the felling of the tree, and I had not said word one to either Morley about it. I wondered if speaking my mind would unburden me of the feelings that had filled me up. That afternoon, I watched them get started on the inside of their house, as contractors arrived in their trucks and circled the property, surveying their potential options, drawing up plans, delivering bids. When Nathan got home from school he let his backpack slide to the floor and asked me, “Did you talk to them?”
I shook my head and turned to my desk to work on an article that was, I complained, “way past deadline.”
The next morning I decided it was time to say something, no matter how uncomfortable I felt. My silence was a kind of parental offense, a crime of omission. And with that silence I was conveying to my son how little the world in which he lives belongs to him.
I took an inventory, my mother’s voice playing in my head. My clothes were clean, ironed and tasteful, even somewhat coordinated. My skin was not ashy and my wild, corkscrew hair was tamed into a ponytail. I would speak calmly, reasonably, articulately. I would represent.
I watched from my front window for the emergence of a Morley, and when I saw the front door open and Jennifer step out onto the porch, heading, I imagined, for her mammoth BMW SUV, I rushed outside and approached her as she was getting out her keys.
“Um . . . just a minute . . . I need to talk to you,” I said, trying not to shout, and she turned toward me and smiled nervously. Was I imagining that she tightened her hold on her purse?
“The pine tree,” I said, coming to stand in front of her. “I’ve been wanting to ask you why you cut it down.”
“Why?” she asked back.
“Yes. Why? Why did you just get rid of everything?” I asked, my agitation surfacing, now that I had finally opened my mouth. “Why did you do it? I mean why would you? Why would you just efface the yard?”
She looked at me. Maybe she didn’t know efface, and the definition was on the tip of my tongue when she said, creasing her brow in puzzlement, “We just . . . we didn’t want it there.”
“You didn’t want it there.”
She nodded. “We decided to start fresh. We’re redoing the interior, too. Taking everything all the way down to the studs, opening up some skylights, building the second floor out. Anyway, the yard . . . we’ll be hiring landscapers,” she said, brightly. “Experts who know what they’re doing. Everything will be brand new.”
“Brand new,” I said. What was with my idiotic echoing?
She smiled with perfect teeth. “We’ll replace the tree with new plantings. In fact, the landscapers have already picked out a new variety of azalea, and we’ve ordered the yews that can be sheared into any shape you like. And we may go with an elegant little Japanese maple. Our landscapers, they’ll know just what should go where.” [End Page 42]
Looking irritated at me for delaying her luxury driving experience, she turned to her car and let me know our conversation was over. I stepped toward her and she looked around, as if for help, and I have to admit that I enjoyed her fear, just the tiniest bit. “Well, I wanted you to know how upset we feel,” I said, “about you killing the tree, about what a shock it was, and how we haven’t been able to stop thinking about the emptiness out back. My son Nathan and I, that is. He named the tree Anthony. We live here.”
She looked at me blankly. “Have we met?” We had. Three times, in fact.
“We live here,” I repeated, “and we loved that tree.”
Turning her attention back to her car, she jangled her keys with impatience, but I kept going. “It was very old, but I guess that much was obvious. Just think . . . “ My voice rose on the last word, strident, and I gave up worrying about how appropriate I seemed. “Just think of everything that was lived under those branches. Omissions and commissions. Reconciliations and tender apologies. Can you imagine all the times it gave shelter from a sudden cloudburst, and the aftermath of its aromatic balm? All the games of tag and Simon Says, and cookouts, and card games, and late night scotches it oversaw? All the dusks after hot, grueling, thankless days at the glass factories and the brickworks, after cutting ice from Fresh Pond and making buggies and valves and soap and ink, and candy at the Necco factory? The morning coffees before trudging off to classrooms and windowless offices? Feast days and graduation parties. First kisses and times of doubt and despair, and heated debates on politics and religion. And all the silences, when people couldn’t seem to get things said, or the easeful quiet when nothing needed expressing? Just think of all that human drama, not to mention the carrying on of the owls and nuthatches and squirrels and caterpillars and ferns that have lived there, on that tree.” I paused to get my breath.
“That tree was there, giving shade, shelter, pleasure, medicine, food. And I just wanted to make sure you thought of all those things before you cut it down, and that you knew it was an Eastern white pine, pinus strobus, the Tree of Peace.”
Jennifer Morley’s eyes were darting now, as she was no doubt pondering how to escape my madness, how to make a break for it and glide away in her perfectly calibrated Bavarian driving machine, how to regain her privacy and peace.
Before she could escape, I said, my voice suddenly even and quiet, “Anyway . . . we all shared in the life of that tree, in case you just didn’t realize it. It shaded half our yard. It belonged to everyone, even if it grew on your land.”
She pressed her key ring to unlock her car, and as she opened it and slid into the ivory leather interior that still had that new car smell, she smiled and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll make it perfect. Out with the old, in with the new,” before she closed the door.
I stood at the curb as she drove off, my scalp aching from my tight ponytail. Jennifer Morley hadn’t recognized me as her neighbor, hadn’t even known who I was. And I didn’t think I had made her see. I had confronted her, blathering on about all the special things that had happened around that tree, even revealing our private name for it. I was spent, but I did not care less for having spoken my mind. She was gone, and I was left with my tangle of haunted emotions.
I spotted a pinecone in the street, lodged in the crack between two curbstones, and picked it up. The traces of sap on its shingles were sticky and there were hollows underneath. Its seeds had long ago been released. Before I put it in my pocket I inhaled its fragrance. Full. Clean. Ancient and abiding. [End Page 43]
HELEN ELAINE LEE is author of two novels, The Serpent’s Gift and Water Marked. She recently finished “The Unlocked Room,” a novel about a group of prisoners and the woman who comes to teach them poetry as she searches for her lost brother. She also recently completed “The Hard Loss,” a novel about a DNA exoneree’s first week of freedom after twenty-four years of incarceration for a crime he did not commit. Stories from “The Unlocked Room” have appeared in Callaloo, Prairie Schooner, Hanging Loose, Best African American Fiction 2009, and www.solsticelitmag.org. She is Vice Chair of PEN New England, and she volunteers with its Prison Creative Writing Program. She is Professor of fiction writing in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing department and Director of MIT’s Program in Women’s & Gender Studies.