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Requiem for a Tree

October 22, 2012

Twenty years ago my homeowners’ association planted a mesquite tree in the narrow space between my building and the one immediately to the west.  Overwatered, badly pruned, messy and inelegant, it grew rapidly, and in not very many years was tall enough to shade the windows of my second-floor apartment.  It reduced my summer electric bill and cast natural shadows on the drab concrete of my landing.  Opening my front door in the morning and looking into its branches, eye level and frequently stocked with birds, was a pleasant way to begin the day.  My cat liked that view, as well.

Today my tree was murdered, dismembered branch by branch and ground into mulch.  The trunk has been sawn into short sections, suitable for splitting and burning in a fireplace, and removed from the property.  It had to go, the manager said, because its roots continually invaded the pipes and cracked the foundations.  I knew the indictment was true, but there is a part of me, a big part, that resents the sentence.  The manager is of the tribe that considers living things a nuisance, whereas I cannot answer the question of why a living thing is less worthy of care than metal and concrete, or even money.  I have been assured that a more well-mannered tree will be planted in its place.

But what has already taken its place is a gap, an emptiness more empty because what my eyes expect to find there is not there.  The sensation is not unlike the absence of a friend who has moved away or died.  One expects to run into him in the places one used to run into him, but he is not there and one doesn’t know what to do in that place precisely because he isn’t there.  What our spaces are filled with are as much our habits as any routine, and the absence of an habitual object, human or tree or inanimate thing, is as much a deprivation as giving up an addiction.  Even when we are not conscious of these objects, they delineate our world, and we are most conscious of them when they have gone missing. New objects, new friends, do not completely replace those lost, do not define the spaces of our lives in the same way.  The new picture on the wall cannot cover the palimpsest of the one that has been taken.  Everything needs rearranging to accommodate the missing and the new, and while sometimes that is a good thing, sometimes equally it is not.

Especially as we get older, we have less time and less reason for redefinition.  I bought my apartment thirty years ago and have grown old here.  The new tree will be lovely eventually, but I may not be here to see it mature into an acceptable replacement.  The gap is likely to remain a gap, as all memories are.  Which is why I am reluctant to open my door or peer out my window or descend the stairs to run an errand.  Polite people do not gawk at a crime scene, even after the corpse has been taken away, nor make it a topic of conversation over dinner.  That does not mean, however, that no crime has taken place.

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