The Wholesome Handbook - Elegy for a Tree

All day, the buzzing of a chainsaw.

Outside the window, there was a man in the box of a white bucket truck, wearing a fluorescent orange vest with silver reflectors down the shoulders and slim alien-eye sunglasses. The man was hoisted up into the sky, and he was slicing the branches off of the grand old tree next door. One by one, they fell to the ground in a sickening whoosh, early autumn leaves and sawdust erupting into the air on impact, like confetti from a cannon.

The little blue house next door, home of the tree, has been empty for a whole year. The last tenants had a ratty old hammock that they strung up between the branches of that tree. Jackrabbits would nap between the roots. The neighbourhood cats, illegally outdoors, would watch with hunter’s anxiety as the squirrels darted up and around the trunk, chattering incessantly about whatever squirrels talk about. Crows would gather on the branches, noble and noisy, surveying the alleyway below.

The sky looks naked now. The light in my living room is different.

The Wholesome Handbook - Elegy for a Tree

The Wholesome Handbook - Elegy for a Tree

The house sold in the summer, and the new owner came by, poking around the backyard of our very private fourplex. All of the tenants that were home at the time – the painter, the smoker, and myself – poked our heads out to see just what in the hell he thought he was doing, strutting around our deck, our little garden, our own big tree. Without much preamble, the new owner of the little blue house dug out his phone, and promptly played us a radio commercial for his private medical practice.

He wondered out loud if he should cut down the tree. I’ve never felt closer with my neighbours, all three of us shooting down this man at once, horrified that the thought of taking down the tree would even enter his mind. The tree was gorgeous, huge, older than any of us. It boasted a huge canopy, and the yard it protected was always dappled in golden sunlight and felt completely hidden away from the world.

He wanted to cut it down, he protested, so he could see the Calgary Tower. If he didn’t end up living there himself, he said, he could advertise the view to potential tenants, and make a few more bucks on rent. But if you walk thirty seconds up the hill, there’s a dead end from which the city can be viewed without obstruction. The Calgary Tower isn’t even that good of a tower. It’ll be obscured from view in a decade anyway, what with all the shiny new skyscrapers going up. What can a tower give you that a tree can’t? How much money could a view of downtown possibly command?

I’m still a little shaken by the visceral reaction I had when I realized the bastard had gone through with it. I felt physically sick, my stomach twisting and burning. I cried for longer than is right or reasonable. I rampaged via text message to the painter in Upper 1113. I considered hexing the new owner for his disrespect and bad taste, fantasized about throwing black salt and ash over his doorway so that he’d never make a penny off of the place.

The Wholesome Handbook - Elegy for a Tree

The Wholesome Handbook - Elegy for a Tree

Men like him cut down the two tidy rows of old, towering pines across the street, too. They tore down the old bungalow I loved, with glass-studded stucco walls and wooden window frames and a green door, and built a fashionable gray house that looks like a box stacked precariously on top of another box. I wouldn’t mind as much, but I know they didn’t do it for love. They didn’t do it to build a home in which to grow old in, a sanctuary, a place for Christmas mornings and backyard BBQs and baby’s first steps. They didn’t do it for art, to make the community a more beautiful place. They didn’t do it because they had to, because the bungalow was falling apart or was too much in need of repair.

They did it for the hollow satisfaction of turning a profit. Gray boxes on astroturf sell better than 70-year old bungalows with 70-year old trees. The less personality, the better. I’m reminded that when my brother and sister in law were selling their house, the realtor insisted they take down all of their personal photos from the walls, that they try to erase any evidence of the life that they’d built there. There’s something about that that makes me incredibly sad.

I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that think that I’m foolish. But I dare you to watch an old tree taken down for no good reason, piece by piece, and not feel something like shame.

I remember another tree that came down, when I was a little girl. The roots of the poplar in the yard were working their way into the plumbing of our little family home in Midnapore. I read Harry Potter for the first time under that tree, watched my brothers climb on her branches, seeing how high they dared to go. I collected her prettiest autumn leaves and tucked them into books. A black squirrel we called Sally had her kittens in that tree. I understand now, as an adult, that it had to be done. But I remember sitting at our front window, watching the heartless desecration of a part of my home, this benevolent goddess destroyed, and feeling such a deep and shocking sense of violation and disgust that I’m still tearing up while typing these words.

In college, they paved my favourite, semi-secret backwoods path, the one that opened up into a grassy valley full of deer and raspberry bushes and led down to the river. I cried watching them do that, too. Soon afterwards, they leveled the valley, built a golf course, and put up a tight maze of profitable gray McMansions.

I know there’s nothing to be done about the domestication of the world around me. As long as I’m living in a growing city, trees will come down, valleys will be levelled, neighbourhoods will gentrify, and charming, sturdy old houses will be torn down for shoddy condominiums. But it is still a little soul-crushing to watch a tree fall apart in front of your eyes, and to add insult to injury, to watch it happen at the hands of a man wearing Neo sunglasses.

I snuck into the backyard next door today. I looked at the carnage, touched it, and then I climbed up onto the deck to look out to the city.

You can’t see the Calgary Tower. It’s obscured by someone else’s big tree down the block.