I helped with the neighborhood tree planting on Saturday. That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that I was all wobbly, cockeyed, and about two-thirds useless last November, and the November before.
November is when we plant trees here in our little 300-house, turn-of-the-century streetcar suburb. We started back in ’86, when some of us neighborhood-activist types got worried about the bad health of our old trees. In a place like this, where most of the dirt is covered by houses, sidewalks, and streets, the forest doesn’t just replenish itself. People have to help it along.
A neighborhood like ours needs trees. In a place where just about every house has a big front porch, which connects to a sidewalk, which connects to every other front porch, well, you’ve just got to walk and visit. That means you need shade, a common roof over the whole place.
Back when the neighborhood was being built, two-man crews brought the trees in by mule cart. I’ve seen pictures. The men wore hats and coats. By today’s standards, they were all dressed up, especially for hard, dirty work. In the pictures, the men look small, about half the size of the trees. The pictures are from sometime around World War I, which was, by any human measure, a long time ago.
The time shrinks considerably, though, when you figure out where the pictures were made, then walk up and look into the canopy of one of the trees those men planted.
When we decided to plant new trees in the neighborhood, we started with the public spacesthe medians, and the greenways, which are the little grass strips between the sidewalk and the curb. We were tree rookies, and we didn’t know all we needed to know about planting trees. We put the wrong trees in the wrong places, and we didn’t mulch. The next summer was hot and dry, so most of the new trees died. I took this as a personal insult, and I set about learning how to choose and plant city trees. I teamed up with some good friends and neighbors, and by the next November, we had learned what trees to plant where, and how to take care of them. Most of those trees lived.
For the next few years, we planted nearly 100 trees every November. In ’93, Southern Living magazine ran a story on our neighborhood tree-planting ritual, complete with a picture of then 5-year-old daughter Jess and next-door neighbor Hannah helping to put a Yoshino cherry tree in the ground. That fall, we got calls from neighborhoods in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida wanting to know more about how we ran our tree-planting program.
Not everybody liked the neighborhood trees, though. Just this year, one woman complained about them and said we ought to cut them all down, so we could see the sunshine. In all my life, this is the first time I’ve run across somebody who’s so bitter and cranky as to dislike shade. No matter what you do, you just can’t please everybody. As my friend Big Steve used to say, “Hell, some people like polio.”
Another neighbor used to complain that the trees we planted were too small. “We’ll never live to see them get to any size,” he grumbled.
“It’s a long-term thing,” I explained. “Complain to the people who didn’t plant any 20 years ago. These trees are for 20 years from now.”
And now, just 15 years later, I’m proud to say some of those first trees we planted are 30 feet tall. Some neighbors who saw them go in the groundincluding the neighbor who complained about their puny sizearen’t around to see them. Then again, some neighborslike daughter Jess and neighbor Hannahcan’t really remember when those trees were little.
Jess teases me. “Daddy, why do you point to those trees sometimes and say, ‘I planted that one, and that one, and that one?’ ”
“Well,” I tell her, “That’s so 40 years from now, you can bring your kid out here and say, ‘My daddy planted that one, and that one, and that one.’ ”
In the fall of ’98, I had to take a little vacation from tree planting. I had this little spot in my right eye that wouldn’t go away. Turned out I had a benign tumor on my pituitary gland, and it was pressing on my optic nerve. So in October, I had to have a little brain surgery. No big deal, just three days in the hospital. Still, I wasn’t quite up to lifting root balls by November.
Last fall, there was the little matter of the quintuple bypass. That bought me five days in the hospital and a six-week order to pick up nothing heavier than a gallon of milk.
Crazy as it seems, I just didn’t feel like I had my whole life back until I could show up on neighborhood tree-planting day. Saturday morning, at 8 o’clock, I showed up. Like a lot of my friends and neighbors from the original 1986 job, I was a little creaky and a little careful about my back. Still, I got the job done. I made some shade. And it felt damn good.
Visit Walter Jowers’ Web site at http://www.housesenseinc.com, or e-mail him at email@example.com.