Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Felling a Tree of Heaven

Our backyard is a small one - approximately 14 feet by 30. That's less that one hundredth of an acre. From our tiny yard we can see the back windows of more than a dozen neighbors, and from our upper floors we can peer into more than a dozen yards.Despite its size, our yard is luxurious. It's outdoor space inside of a city, a space where things grow. And despite being crowded in among so many other yards, it offers privacy, and a sense of retreat and of tranquility. From the yard, one can hear what's going on inside the house, in neighboring yards, and in the surrounding streets. Splashes of music and television and conversation waft in, but they don't feel intrusive. I imagine that my neighbors pay as little attention to what goes on in my yard and inside my home as I attend to what goes on in theirs.

A couple of days ago, I cut down one of our trees, seeking to free up the air and light, to return to us a more open view of our graceful space. And because I've never known what kind of tree it was, I did some research. Surprising how difficult it proved to identify it. I'm still not sure I got it right, but that's okay. Tree of Heaven? How can I pass on that! Until today, I didn't know there was such a thing.

When we moved in eight years ago, the yard contained no trees. There was only the patchy lawn and a few shrubs. The first tree we planted was a memorial for Meggie, Ponczka's Brittany Spaniel that died shortly after we moved in. We buried her ashes by the back fence and marked the spot with a birch tree. Sometime later that same year, we planted four young conifers along the east fence, then a crab apple tree near the back deck a year later. In the meantime, we re-sodded the lawn, and a few more shrubs and flowering plants went in. A single pot of ivy has gone rampant, completely engulfing half of the fence separating us from one neighbor, all the walls of our deck, and on the way to claiming the rear wall of our house. About three years ago, a maple seed took root, and it's now stretched and filling out, angling for the best of the afternoon light.

The maple tree's main competition is coming from a former stalk that Ponczka planted about a year before the maple showed itself. She'd liked the look of it, and harvested it from near her office. It surprised both of us when it quickly grew into a tree, bulking up and outstripping the conifers, the crab apple and then the birch in about two years. This - it turns out - is the Tree of Heaven, so named because of how quickly it shoots its single, straight trunk right into the sky. It's a nice looking tree: it's branches angle out broadly, creating a nice canopy, and the leaves evenly line the reedy branches, a half-dozen or more to a side. And it keeps growing, towering over the birch and maple, and even over our third floor deck.

Our once sparsely planted yard is now a mini-forest, lush and tangled with growth. We'll soon be able to string a hammock between the Tree of Heaven and the maple, they've grown so robust. We now only catch glimpses of the surrounding homes and yards through all the interlaced foliage. The sounds still permeate, but muffled as they are, they enhance the sense of distance separating us, creating for us a cool oasis for enduring these dog days.

The tree I felled was not the giant I've described, but its offspring. A tiny sprout we overlooked two years ago became a sapling last year and by last week was itself on the verge of overtaking the still slender birch. Situated on the fenceline separating us from our neighbor to the west, it already overhung both yards, and threatened to obscure the rest or our yard from the kitchen window. So we decided to take it down. It was surprising how easy it was. It had reached a height of more than twenty feet, the trunk with an eight inch diameter. I de-limbed it first, then sawed off the top half. I finished by chopping away at the root until I could dislodge the trunk from the soil.

As quickly as it appeared in our yard, the speed of its removal was surreal. In some of the online descriptions of the Tree of Heaven, it's referred to as a weed, due to its rapid and invasive growth. We'll want to be on the lookout for others shoots that spring up unplanned. But as to our first Tree of Heaven - it's firmly entrenched. The books say they only live to be fifty or so, but that's almost certainly enough to see us gone. For now, it remains the lord flora of our little urban forest. And we're happy to watch it grow.

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