Archive for September, 2012
In our neighborhood, all the houses were alike; their complex geometry, indistinguishable. But mine was the most splendid of the identical houses, because I framed it with an impeccable lawn. Blades of grass stood in unbroken lines: crew-cut, uniform, regimental green. The lawn was the perfect complement to the red brick of the house itself, and behind that, the vast blue emptiness of sky.
But such a spectacle is paid for in vigilance. I walked the lawn every evening, being careful to vary my path so as not to flatten the zoysia. I suffered no weed to survive the night; I dug out their roots with a thin-bladed knife. My neighbors, dwelling in their own identical houses, let crabgrass spoil their property and lives.
The first sign was so small. During my patrol, I found a sapling, almost a foot tall, which had not been there the night before. I am aware of what occurs on my lawn above all other pieces of land in this world. I know it better than my own face in the mirror. Had the sapling instead been a tendril of kudzu, the stalk of a sunflower, even the grasping face of a dandelion, I could have understood its sudden appearance. But a sapling, no matter how small, does not sprout over night. I dug up the sapling and worried about its roots; how far could they have spread in a day?
I woke the next morning under a shadow. There was an oak in the middle of my front yard. Seventy feet above the lawn, the tree boasted a full crown of leaves, towering above the gable of my roof line. An irate squirrel, at my eye level, hissed at me and made what must pass for a rude gesture, then scurried upwards.
The tree came not only with fauna, but with flora, and all was bounded inside a precisely delineated patch of transplanted forest floor. Bounded by a ten foot by ten foot square, there were scrubby pine saplings, brambles, vines, fallen leaves, and twisted limbs. Exact unbroken lines separated the wild from my zoysia.
Could it have been a practical joke? I had had trouble with curious kids and ill-trained pups before, so I had aimed motion-sensing floodlights at the lawn. They had not been trigged in the night.
My neighbors slowed down as they drove past my house. I knew how to look into their faces, through their windshields. I was used to seeing jealousy—they looked upon my landscaping and despaired. But that day, behind their masks of surprise, I saw smug smiles. They couldn’t wait to call the homeowners’ association. They would put a yellow ticket on my door, a thirty dollar fine for “untidiness.” It would be a blemish upon my heart.
I called every arborist listed for our town. None could make an emergency visit that day. A wind storm thirty miles away had thrown limbs into power lines, toppled trees over roads, and it was a bonanza for anyone with a chainsaw.
I moped around the house all day; I tried to stay away from the windows. I finally fell asleep once the sun hid my shame, but rustling wind unsettled my dreams.
The next morning, there were two oak trees in my lawn.
The newer arrival was as tall as its predecessor; it, too, came bounded with its own precise plot of forest floor. Beneath its crown were scrub pines and brambles and leaves and earthworms. I looked from one oak to the next, but I could see no difference. They were as alike as mirror reflections. From my window, I was derided by two squirrels, who turned their tails towards me in tandem and climbed above my head.
The arborist had no explanation. A tree is a tree, he said, and he was dismayed to cut down two healthy specimens for purely aesthetic reasons. I made a mental note to use a new arborist in the future. I watched his work, scolding him when I thought he was unnecessarily endangering the remaining zoysia. He lopped off all the limbs first, then brought down the trunks in sections, running each fragment through a chipper that sprayed a cloud of sawdust over my lawn. The arborist tackled the remaining scrub with a weed whacker, a horrible tool without finesse. The process of excision brought no relief. Two barren squares of soil stared up at me like eyes.
I awoke the next morning to four trees standing outside my window. Four oaks, four hundred square feet of forest, four squirrels with distain in their furry faces.
I wanted a specialist: an arborist of renown, not a provincial layabout. By the time a person of sufficient repute from the state university arrived at my home, two more days had passed: four trees had become eight, then sixteen. They stood on their squares like chessmen—exactly as neat, exactly as scheming. Only, they were all rooks, and I was the lone pawn. The renowned arborist chopped down the sixteen trees. I didn’t scold him for carelessness as I had his predecessor. The lawn was already suffering from sixteen open wounds. I asked the renowned arborist why the vegetables had chosen to wreck my lawn and not another’s. He said that oaks used to be common in our region, before the subdivisions were built. I asked how I could stop them from spreading. He offered only the most dire solution: a potent herbicide,which had assassinated notable trees in university towns and felled founders’ oaks. It was an indiscriminate killer. Zoysia would not survive, nor any root or seed below the soil.
A few days prior, I could not have dreamed of ruining my own lawn, my own flesh and blood. But now, I thought of it as a test of will. Anyone can maintain an established lawn—it only takes a modest irrigation system, an imprecise mix of chemicals. But to raise grass from nothing? It would be a proof of my mastery. I would have a lawn that belonged to a fresh, young, vigorous generation. Yes, the homeowners’ association would censure me, but their authority is only covenant, not moral law.
The herbicide smelled like chlorine. It hissed and sizzled over the zoysia. Pert stems drooped into the foamy earth. All was barren, void, and new.
The next morning, thirty-two identical trees and their bracken filled the emptiness in front of my house. Thirty-two squirrels urinated from thirty-two branches onto the crowded forest floor.
I called the renowned arborist and harangued him until the university switchboard blocked my calls. The profession had lost its way if it could not kill a few dozen ordinary trees.
I walked to the end of my driveway and looked back up towards my home. The trees obscured nearly the entire edifice; hardly any red brick or blue sky broke through the wall of foliage. Some may say the woods are lovely, dark and deep, but these are the ones who are only passing through. But I, who suddenly found myself in their midst, cannot find the beauty of trees. They are unwelcome when they come to visit, even less welcome when they have come to stay.
I was awake all night, leaning against the mailbox, to see the moment when the next iteration of oaks would be born. It happened at exactly midnight. This must have been coincidence, as I could not believe that trees cared about our human measures of time.
In a blink, sixty-four trees now filled my lawn. There was no space for any more; the last generation quivered at it was pressed by the newcomers. The exact space that each had been allocated—its one hundred square feet—bled into its neighbors, so that not all had their full allotment. They strained at the perimeters of the lawn, and I worried that they would not be held back by sidewalks and property lines any more.
What could I do? Could I burn them? I would set up barriers and dig trenches so that the fire would not run out of control. But the flames might crawl along the branches and spread to my home. And if not from branches, the fire would be spread by cinders caught in the wind. I judged it a foolish risk, a mad plan, but it might have been our only hope. Had I know what would follow, for me and for us all, I would have sacrificed my home and more. I would have been a hero, with a statue in my honor in an open public square. I would have had more fame than I could have ever hoped to gain from a nice lawn on a suburban street.
But now, there will be no more statues, no more squares. How could I have known that, then? Can I be expected to know the future from what had happened on my lawn? And so I did nothing, which was all that anyone could expect.
At midnight, the trees doubled again. One hundred and twenty-eight oaks exploded from the earth, breaking past the property lines that they had previously obeyed. The driveway was thrown over, chunks of concrete reversed. Trunks crashed up through my living room. A tree branch shattered my bedroom window. A crown of leaves broke open the attic dormers. The rubble of my dwelling was lost in scrubby pine saplings, brambles, vines, and fallen leaves. It was as if that marvelous place—so like its siblings along the neighborhood streets, and yet so superior, because of my landscaping—had never existed.
I was spared impalement because I felt the ground swell beneath my feet and danced away just in time. One hundred and twenty-eight squirrels cried victory above my head. They hurled acorns down at me—the seeds of the two hundred and fifty-six identical trees that were to come the next day.
My house was only the first casualty as the oaks continued to multiply geometrically. In three days, the homeowners’ association ceased to exist, because the entire neighbor had been filled by trees. Even the most crabgrass-polluted yards disappeared into forest. My smug neighbors saw their homes, identical to mine, destroyed. Two days after that, our city was gone beneath a wall of wood. In a week, homeless human refugees flocked to the last open spaces—deserts, islands, parking lots, and glaciers. But the trees followed them. They marched beyond their natural limits, bringing with them patches of forest that overlaid water and ice. Oaks limbs touched, end to end, continuous, along every latitude and longitude.
And now, it is thirty three days since the first oak was born to loom above us. More than eight billion trees that have sprung from that first seed, and each oak is identical to all its kin. Or, at least, we cannot tell the difference. Yesterday, humans outnumbered our arboreal enemies two to one; tomorrow, they will have reversed the odds.
We suburban souls find ourselves huddled in the darkness, without our homes, beneath an solid dome of entwined limbs. Unbroken lines of trees, as thick as grass, grow closer and closer. Their trunks press in on us, and we have less room to live with each passing day.
Soon, the world will be made of wood, and only the squirrels will ever see the sky.
Bob Dylan’s latest studio album, Tempest, includes a 14 minute song, also called “Tempest,” about the sinking of the Titanic. It’s a fine song, but I find it more interesting as a piece of musical folklore and history. “Tempest” is Dylan’s go at a broadside & disaster ballad, which has a long and fine tradition in American music.
I often think of folk music as something as old as the hills — that songs like “Barbara Allen” and “Coo-Coo Bird” have no author but their players. But that’s only part of the picture. Other equally famous and wide-spread songs, like “Frankie and Johnny” or “Jesse James” or “Delia,” are based in real people and events, made legendary for the purposes of song. You can visit Old Dan Tucker’s grave right here in Georgia.
The Titanic provides a particularly recent, concrete and fertile example of this process. Within just a few years of the 1912 sinking, there were dozens of songs circulating in the America. These songs are old enough now that we call them “folk music,” but at one point, it was just “music.”
The disaster has so many allegorical elements — the class struggle, the band nobly playing “Nearer My God to Thee,” the hubris of man to call anything unsinkable — that it can give rise to many different kinds of song. And the same song can find different emphasis in the hands of different players.
I’ll link to a few of my favorites here, as well as some other resources if you’d like to learn more.
I have a long personal fascination with the Titanic, which began when I built a large-scale plastic model of the ship. It took weeks, and I got to know every floorboard it seems. Since then, I’ve read several books about the disaster, marveled over the crockery pulled up from the ocean floor, seen stained dressing gowns in an Edinburgh museum that were worn by survivors plucked from lifeboats, and been the only visitor who was not a teenage girl at the Titanic Experience in Orlando.