Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The fall of an elder

[I meant to post this in May. Spring has come and gone and will come again.]

The tree on the southwest corner of 56th Street and Hyde Park Boulevard took a long time to die.

First, the leaves of one limb would turn yellow, dry up, and fall off, and another would follow, and another. By last autumn, one limb of leaves remained, and it was dying. Of course, when winter came it didn't matter—it looked like all the living but leafless tress around it.

It made me sad to think of spring arriving, knowing that at least one prominent old tree would still be a stark hulk against the blue skies after all its brethren had burst into bud.

That's why I was relieved a few weeks ago to find a crew cutting it down. By the time I arrived at the bus stop across the street, they had cut its limbs off, and one man had sawed through about half the trunk. I had shown up in time for the crucial moment. One of the crew cleared the other southbound lane and halted traffic. I wondered how they were going to control its fall, then I noticed that the ropes tied to the tree were anchored to a bar on the front of one of the trucks. As the truck slowly reversed, the tree tumbled. It seemed almost like a gentle fall rather than a hard crash. I could imagine that the spirit of the dead tree was relieved of its burden at last.

By the next morning, all that remained was the stump and some wood chips missed during the cleanup. Within a few days, the stump had been cut down and removed, and all that is left today is a large, roughly circular patch of wood chips, the kind the Chicago Park District and landscapers sometimes put on the bare patches under healthy trees.

I miss that tree, and the one on the southeast corner behind the bus stop that was struck by lightning or torn apart during one of the spate of micro-bursts that have devastated so many trees here in recent years. I miss their shade and their guardianship of the ad hoc footpath through the park and of the bus stop, each a little like the sole remaining pillar of an ancient gate. When I look at the wood chips that mark the location of the one and the three spindly bushes that encircle the patch left by the other, I feel like I am visiting the grave sites of respected, beloved elders. Both look like scars that will take a long time to heal.

I wonder if their spirits ever leave, or if they too still mourn.


  1. After finding that houses on my old block in NYC were torn down, I've come to think of Google Maps as an at least temporary archive of the defunct. Your tree — I think — is there: look for 5594 S Hyde Park Blvd and use Street View.

  2. That's it—I just took a screen shot of it.

    Interestingly, my building no longer has a street view.

  3. Long live the tree! At least virtually.

  4. Dead trees always have an interesting look, especially if they are in the middle of a field (like some of the others around here, or were around here).

    I still miss all the big guys uprooted by the October storm a few years ago.

  5. A microburst split our most prominent red maple. We had it taken down shortly afterward. It was the focal point from inside the house and out.

    A few years earlier our Pastor gave a sermon that talked about trees. He had a favorite tree that he drew strength from. He ended by suggesting that we go home that day and pick a favorite tree. The tree I picked was the red maple that was damaged.