Suburban Soliloquy

140. The Revenge of Trees

When my parents moved into this house almost fifty years ago, the development was only a few years old. It was still sparse, the houses lining the tangled network of streets posed naked and new. My mother loved trees and bushes. She quickly enveloped our house in evergreen shrubs and the arabesque of English ivy. She planted hollies and dogwoods, and a tall pine to block the view of the utility pole in the backyard. She fought with my father's need to trim the growth, preferring wildness to the artificial geometries our neighbors applied to their bushes. My father is dead and my mother lives in an apartment not far away. I have acquired the house. I appreciate my mother's taste, her trying to convert this house into a woodland cottage, but now that it is my house, I am condemned to battle with the plants.

The Japanese dogwood nearest the front door has stretched its limbs across the roof in an effort to push off shingles. An American dogwood is doing the same above the garage. They are attractive, but it is worrisome. The ivy is reaching under the siding. PECO Energy - the Philadelphia Electric and Gas Company - periodically sends a crew to trim back the trees that line our backyard. Over the years they have left the tallest pine with branches only on one side, facing the house. It had been a source of anxiety. What if the lopsided tree should in time fall onto the house? Another such pine stands against our bedroom. The trees in our backyard also parallel the sewer, their roots reaching down to clog the flow.

In different seasons and at different times of day, Monet painted the towering poplars that lined the banks of the river Epte near his home and famous garden in Giverney. While I adorez his peupliers, the one that is growing beside the garage of my house disturbs me. It grows at a phenomenal rate, which is why the paper pulp industry must like the species. Every year at the end of summer, I cut it down to within inches of the ground. Every spring it begins again, growing more trunks from the stump and rising seven feet before the autumn. I just severed the new growth again this morning. The poplar had already reached four feet and this is just the end of May!

This poplar by the garage was not a tree my mother planted. It found its own way there. I can respect the tree, even admire it, after all the Mona Lisa is painted on pioppo, but I can't have its roots slipping beneath the foundations of the house. Last month, I decided to dig it out.

Wanting to be sure I would have it all, I began digging about three feet away from the stump. The spade did not go far into the ground when it was stopped short by a root more than two inches thick. Although a soft wood, it did not allow my spade to cut through. I chopped a large gash into the succulent white roots and it felt cruel. Neither my heart nor strength was prepared to complete the job. I gave up almost at the beginning, deciding to hire someone else to uproot this tenacious entity. And hire someone I must. After abandoning the labor, I went into the house and did a little research. The roots of the poplar tree are notorious, can travel over a hundred feet in their search for water, damaging foundations and walls as they strive to thrive.

Then there is the tall pine at the end of our driveway. This tree hates cars. When you come up the street from the southerly direction, you climb a hill and can see our house directly ahead. Just before reaching the house, the road turns sharply towards the left to face due north. At night you can stand in the middle of the road and it lines up directly to the North Star. Our driveway begins just at the end of that curve and on the north side of our driveway grows that pine tree.

Shortly after my father planted it there, a car came speeding up that hill and did not manage to complete the turn. The tree disappeared and there were tire tracks in the lawn. My father was outraged when he made the discovery. In the street were bits of exhaust pipe and farther down the block he saw what looked like a small tree in the middle of the road. Sure enough, when he reached it, it was the tree from the driveway, and clutched in its branches it held a license plate.

It was a dealer's plate. My father called the dealer and arranged to pay them a visit with the plate. It was soon learned that the car had been a brand new Lincoln Continental that the dealer's son decided to borrow and take for a spin without his father consent. His father found out. In addition to the cost of repairing the car, the dealer also reached an agreement with my father, who negotiated a price to not report the matter to the police. My father, a forgiving man, suggested the cost of the tree and probably a little bit more for the inconvenience, if I know my father. The dealer agreed, but the story doesn't end there.

When my father got home, he noticed the injured tree was still intact. He put it back into the hole from which it had been ripped and the tree survived. It did more than survive. That pine took vengeance on cars.

Several more times that tree collected cars. I was home for two of those incidents. One time it was a very drunk young man not wearing a shirt. The police took him away. Another day a group of young men had gathered around the tree, so I went down to see what it was all about. The drunk driver had come back to visit the tree with friends. He explained to them that something had been wrong with his shocks and the car just "floated" out of control into the tree. The second incident involved a couple of young ladies. The driver hit the tree so hard, they were both stuck in their seats. The driver was in shock, her passenger was crying, her legs trapped. An ambulance took them away. I learned later that neither had actually been seriously injured. That scarred tree hated cars and over the years has wreaked a terrible vengeance on them while growing over forty feet tall.

At one time I thought to cut that tree down and spare the reckless drivers, but my neighbor the next door down said not to, said that tree defended his property as well as mine, protecting the kids who played on our front lawns.

Over the years the pine tree grew branches incredibly long that stretched across the bottom of the driveway and kept most of the snow off. But this year came unusual weather and the entire East Coast was caught in a windstorm. In our neighborhood with nearly every house with trees, large limbs were broken off, especially from the pines. Some were even uprooted, although not the tenacious poplar by the garage. The fallen limbs took out power lines; the fallen trees blocked roads. I was fortunate in that the tree in our backyard lost so many of its branches, I no longer fear it falling on the house, at least not for many years to come.

Trees and other plants have more right to the property than does our house. They are constantly asserting themselves to prove that point. They will ultimately win, reclaiming what was theirs to be theirs again. I only hope they can wait for me to depart. I don’t want to find myself living out-of-doors. Meantime, the pine at the bottom of our driveway lost plenty of limbs during the windstorm and won't be able to shelter the driveway come winter, but it remains thicker and stronger than ever. Reckless driver beware!

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"