When a Tree Falls

by Mark Dvorak

We lost a tree during last Friday’s storm. By the time I got home it was late and there it was, lying in the darkness, parallel to the south fence all wet and shiny and sad. It was an Ailanthus, otherwise known as the Tree of Heaven, and the rotting trunk snapped off in the wind about four feet from the ground, crushing the gate and the segment of the east fence that runs up to Bill’s house out back. The tree destroyed the iron railings on Bill’s back stoop, tore down the power and phone lines to his house and the upper limbs dented the hood and cracked the windshield on the car parked next to the coach house. An Ailanthus packs a wallop.

Ailanthus is an odd kind of tree and I don’t remember seeing one before moving here. The trunk is tall and straight and the smooth bark reminds me a little of an elephant’s skin. The branches do not have a broad span and begin their reach what seems to be a long way up from the ground. When it was standing, my Ailanthus stood out like an oddball between the Scotch Pine and the White Spruce that shared its little plot, and the Ailanthus was nothing like my glorious ancient Sliver Maple, which shades most of the back yard. The fallen Ailanthus was twenty-five paces long, making it around a seventy-five footer. I feel kind of sorry for not learning its name, and not learning more about it before now. It’s sort of like finding out after he died that your weird uncle Ed was an FBI agent. You wish you had known.

For the third morning in a row the men are here early with their chainsaw, ensuring that the folksinger remains sleep deprived and discharging the unpleasant duty of reducing what’s left of my Ailanthus into firewood and sawdust. It is 7:45 and already it is hot. The air is sticky and I can smell the smoke of one of the men’s cigarettes. I hear them chatting and laughing between chainsaw bursts. Their chainsaw whines and screams and it makes me want to put a screwdriver through each of my ear drums. 

A long time ago I worked for a tree company which was contracted to prune the trees in many of the cemeteries around the village where I then lived. Those on the crew with skill and experience were the only ones allowed to ride the cherry picker up to trim the top branches. The new guys on the crew did the other work. We maneuvered the dump truck which pulled the chipper, into a strategic position, collected the fallen limbs, and either fed them into the chipper, or if they were too big around, used a chainsaw to turn them into firewood and sawdust. 

Before I was demoted to running the chipper full time; before I had backed it into a headstone with the name CANARY on it, I used two chainsaws to handle the limbs. Mostly I used a mid-grade saw, around two horse power. For the trunks and bigger limbs though, I got to fire up the STHIL, with its long ominous blade and seven horse engine. That saw had a deep growl when it idled and an authoritative roar when it sliced through timber. 

The men in the yard this morning, laughing and smoking and pushing their little saw past it limits could use that STHIL. This is their third morning here. With a seven horse STHIL, they would’ve been done on the first day in a few hours, tops. And they would have had enough time left over to beat the noon rush for an Italian beef at the Tasty Dawg.

Right around the time the men finish off the Ailanthus, the lawn mowers will begin. And then the power edgers and the blowers will follow. The garbage truck will be by later today and the garbage man will not like that pile of wood awaiting him. He will beep his horn again, and again the pieces of Ailanthus will resound with boom after boom as they tumble into the back of the garbage truck. The motorcycles, the delivery vans, service vehicles and moms in their minivans running errands or bustling off to appointments, will all barrel down my street, as will the guy down the block who heads off to work each afternoon in a rusting Chevy in need of a new exhaust system.

Now that it’s summer, the world is noisy again. Muffled winter mornings, doors and windows sealed, are a distant memory, as soon will be my Ailanthus, my Tree of Heaven. “When a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” goes the philosophical riddle. Nobody in the neighborhood recalled hearing my Tree of Heaven crash to the ground, no one. Not Bill out back, not Kathy who lives above him, not Christine who lives in the big yellow house next door. Nor did the fellow who lives upstairs from her and works nights at the post office hear it. Believe it or not, the guy in the coach house whose windshield got smashed didn’t hear it either. When a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is yes. Listen for the chainsaw.

7.02.09

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