We live in a wooded area. Dominating the landscape are groves of the fast-growing and non-native eucalyptus tree. There are also redwoods, pine, maple, cedar, and other trees whose names I have not yet learned. Sometimes, a tree will die. I suppose this is due to some sort of infestation, because along with a giant pine that died in our backyard, a youngish (for a tree) tree recently died, too. It went from green to orange. This is how we knew. This youngish (for a tree) tree was just a sapling when I was a baby. My mother says that she used to sit beside it, holding baby me, on the stairs leading up to our house.
It is costly to cut down a big tree. It is also dangerous. We had a eucalyptus that was close to our house cut down a couple of years ago, and in the middle of that job, a guy on the crew died felling a tree at another site.
Meanwhile, to save money, we decided not to have the tree people haul away the rounds. It turns out that those rounds are nearly immobile. Even quartered, they are not easy for a very strong person to carry. Angie’s father, bless him, came down a few times with a log-splitter and cut all the wood (which covered our entire yard) down to firewood size. He took a bunch, got friends and relatives to come take a bunch, and left us with a generous firewood pile, which has been drying in our driveway ever since.
Some of our neighbors feel that the non-native eucalyptus hold up the hillside. Others (and we’re included here) simply cannot afford the thousands of dollars that it would take to remove any of the trees. But recently, our westerly neighbor hired a landscaper and eventually cut down a bunch of trees, including the dead one on our property and its friend. They also lopped off the top of some bushy trees between our houses. Suddenly, we emerged from the dark forest and into the light. There is a huge sky up there. (We had no idea.) There is a cyclone-shaped opening through which we can see University Avenue running all the way down Berkeley to the frontage road, and then the bay–darker when it is windy, nearly silver when it is calm–and across some islands to the hills of Marin. If you stand in one corner of the dining room and sort of squint, you can even see the Golden Gate Bridge.
I think this whole experience has something to teach us about editing.
But before I go there, I should mention one more element. Recently, our insurance company wrote to say that they were not going to renew our house insurance because our house was not defensible against fire. Some of you may remember back in 1991–October 21st, 1991, in fact, which was my big drinking birthday–the Oakland hills conflagrated. I drove to Santa Cruz that day to meet up with friends, and I remember seeing the billowing black smoke to my left as I cruised along the frontage road, which I now can see from my living room.
My oldest sister, who lives in the Kensington hills, packed up her most precious belongings in a U-Haul she’d rented and drove to Bolinas. My mother came over and watered my father’s roof and put some of the paintings from the house in her van. My father ignored the whole situation. I think he just couldn’t handle it. He did say that my sister would have been the person leaving Germany in the early 1930s while the rest of us were insisting that we were Germans more than we were Jews. He understood that, but still he stayed in his study and worked on a paper. He had a friend whose house did burn down in the fire (as did Maxine Hong Kingston’s house and all available versions of an original manuscript she’d been writing), and that friend came to stay with him (and me) here at the house for some time.
But anyway, I guess that the financial crisis and the tendency of our hills to burn made my insurance company nervous about risk-taking, and they sent some guy out to photograph our brush-covered yard and then told us they couldn’t cover us anymore.
Unless we made some changes.
Needless to say, we have found ourselves some great gardeners and are contracting with an arborist as I type, and the brush is getting cleared. The fire department has a whole downloadable pdf about fire prevention guidelines, and this is where we come back to editing.
The fire department wants space between your trees. Ten feet between trees and six feet from the ground to your first branches. They want the area between your plants cleared, and the debris removed.
Today I was lying on my couch (as part of an exercise in relaxing from a book on creating balance in your life. Seriously), and I noticed a blue jay fly way up and land in the tallest pine tree around. The leaves on the maple are now golden and pink. The bushy trees with the lopped off tops look cheery, green and round. I’ve been rejoicing in being able to see the sky and the bay and the incredible sunsets and the tiny cars way down on the freeway, but today, I really noticed the trees. Because I could see each individual tree. There were no dead branches to look through and no layers and layers of trees blending into a wall of darkness. It’s still a wooded area. It’s still a forest, but it’s been edited. The ragged parts and the dead parts and the overabundance pruned back. Some space cleared between the trees. The shape of the ground, usually hidden below the pine needles and fallen eucalyptus bark, is visible again.
The next class I am teaching is about revision. Editing. Adjusting the landscape so that you can see the trees. Raking away what is no longer alive, even if once it was the most vibrant green sprig waiting to bloom.
It can be harsh to see a big tree taken down. It’s a little like going to the circus. There’s a guy roped to the top of a nearby tree by a kind of pulley system that keeps you imagining just how he’d fall, the trajectory of his swing on the rope if he happened to slip. He loops another part of the rope around a section of trunk or branch and then takes the chainsaw that he holds while balancing on the tree, and with a roar, the chainsaw zips through the tree like a letter opener, and the chunk of tree falls, the rope around it lowering it to the ground. All of this is happening four or five stories up, in the arms of the aged pine, say, that is being taken down. I think of my father, who lived in this house and loved those trees, and the doctors who hung on the towering trunk of his life and slowing hacked it into managable pieces and let them crash down.
It can hurt to edit, too. Those “darlings,” those hard-earned limbs and rings of wood. The firy pitch of the chain saw is addictive, though. It’s exciting. It promises room for the healthy trees, for the plants that will flourish with an extra bit of sun, for the space between that will allow what is there to be seen to advantage. And most of all, for the view that opens up, which is what the book points to, something beyond the trees, outside the forest, framed by the labor that allows to eye to look through to the other side.