Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Tree No One Knew

A cherry orchard of one enlivens the left side of our small backyard. Technically, the tree (Prunus cerasus) belongs to our neighbor, but his benign disinterest in its sour fruit yields us much more than my husband’s juicy June pies.

“I awoke every morning happy, looking out at the orchard—“ says Lyubov Andreyevna, the cherry orchard’s owner in Chekhov’s eponymous play. “ This wonderful orchard! Those masses of white flowers, the blue sky . . . “ I feel that same elation each April when our tree blooms, signaling spring of course with open windows and songs of arriving birds. A bluebird pair ignores the blossoms, but they always pick the nest box under the cherry’s shade instead of one near the holly across the yard.

Busy with soccer, recitals, and the end-of-school rush, I can’t watch the fruit slowly grow and ripen. But the birds will tell us when it’s ready. This spring, a catbird’s grating tcheck-tcheck brought the news. Blue jays, crows, robins, and a lone male cardinal soon joined him, and I sent the children outside to pick our share. The feel, the smell, the taste of free fruit brings out the wild in my kids, and they stretch, grasp, jump, and climb to reach the best. There’s some happy bickering over who will hold the bowl, who will assault the tree.

But the happiest gleaners of all may be the squirrels. They ripple across the grass from all directions and scramble through the limbs all day. Dangling by their toes on bowing branchlets, they risk life itself to snatch one more red morsel into their cheeks. I can imagine an aging mother squirrel, after a lifetime of springs sharing cherries with her kits, also sharing Lyubov Andreyevna’s emotion, “My dear, sweet beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness.”

Last Saturday, we traded our view of the cherry for a day of my daughters’ dance performances. By evening, the cherry looked a bit bare but still bustling. In our absence, though, the neighbor on our right had mangled his American holly. Long past dusk, he hacked and swore in the heat, and by morning, all that remained of the 20-foot beauty was a tall, knotty stump. I’d never paid much attention to the holly, never noted the birds that ate its red berries or hid among its sharp leaves. My dislike of that neighbor’s hard-edged, exotic plant-dominated landscaping has led me to look the other way.

But the stump reminds me of the perils of turning your head, a sin David Brower explicates in his book on the destruction of Glen Canyon, The Place No One Knew. Illustrated by Elliott Porter’s luminous photographs, the book records pink rocks, purple sands, massive walls, and shimmering vistas, all inundated by a hydroelectric power project in the 1960s. As Brower laments, “Neither you nor I, nor anyone else knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should endure.” Brower blamed himself for not lobbying Congress personally, for not rallying the Sierra Club to launch a nationwide campaign so save the Canyon.

What could I do to convince a neighbor not to chop down a healthy tree? How could I communicate with someone who holds such different values? I ask myself, should I even speak out when we live so closely packed and must get along? These are questions environmentalists face every day, in large and small scale dilemmas. I look at the holly stump with grief and regret, at the cherry with joy and fear.

Lyubov Andreyevna at least owned her orchard, though financial reversals forced her to sell and flee before the axes fell. She mourned, “Oh, my orchard. My dear sweet beautiful orchard! . . . Farewell. Farewell!” And in my backyard this morning, a chainsaw is whirring, stage right. Curtain.


Wild Flora said...

As a lover of books and nature, I'm becoming addicted to your blog. Thanks for doing it, and also thanks for mentioning the blog carnivals--what a great way to discover other blogs and read a wild array of interesting posts.

I too have struggled with what, if anything, to say to neighbors who seem to be doing their best to destroy whatever land they own; I've also had to deal with clients who were bent on doing the same. After doing this for a couple of decades (and mostly getting it wrong), what I've observed is that people generally react very badly to criticism, no matter how mild it is. I have never had any luck telling a neighbor, client, or anyone else something that suggests, even obliquely, that the person in question is doing something wrong.(Even when I think I'm being very subtle, people usually see right through me and are offended anyway!) Not only do people not change in response to criticism (not mine at any rate), but typically they dig in their heels and become even more committed to whatever course of action I was trying to talk them out of.
In contrast, what does seem to work (for me anyway) is to try to watch for and praise people for whatever good they do, while doing my best to ignore (and even harder, forgive) the mistakes they make. (In these situations, I find it helps to remind myself of mistakes I've made. Fortunately, I have an extensive catalogue to choose from.)
Beyond that, the other strategy that seems to work well is public education designed to change community values. Human beings are very sensitive to social pressure, and I do think that most of us will usually change our behavior if we think that what we're doing now is going to meet with widespread disapproval.
I think Al Gore is a master at these techniques, by the way.

pinenut said...

Hi Flora,

Thanks for your thoughtful post. I enjoy you blog, too, and learn something every time I visit.

That's an excellent idea to remember my own mistakes to gain patience regarding my neighbor's. My "extensive catalogue" includes a butterfly bush that I still haven't removed, despite knowing its invasive nature, because we so love watching the insects that visit it.

I think that you're right, too, that in a way changing society's values makes more sense to pursue than confronting individuals. Also, I'm trying to celebrate nature as many ways as I can, rather than focusing on clean-ups, protests, and lamentations. Hence, we helped organize a Carson birthday party and are avid participants in Plug-It Out, a small-but-growing effort to get people to turn off their electricity one night a month, and we try to invite friends over that night to enjoy the dark together.

All ideas of positive ways to affect environmental change are most welcome. Thanks for yours, Flora!

pinenut said...

A reader sent in the perfect quote from Tolkien in response to the mangled holly story: "It seems their delight to
slash and beat down growing things that are not even in their way." (Tolkien,
The Two Towers).

Thanks, Larry! Drop by again and tell us about your blog. . . .

Wild Flora said...

Hi there,
I share your love for Buddleia and, in a transparent effort to justify planting it, have spent some time reading about its invasive qualities. I get the impression that whether it should be planted depends a lot on what variety it is and where it's planted. Some of the varieties seem to be quite aggressive about seeding themselves around, while others don't. Also, of course, you have to consider whether you're living close to an area that can be invaded. For instance, I once saw a Buddlea growing in the heart of Chicago, covered in Monarch butterflies. No way that Buddleia is anything but a boon! Bottom line, if you get Buddleia seedlings all around your plant and live near a natural area that is at risk, yes you should get rid of it. But if it hasn't shown any tendency to seed itself around and/or you don't live near a natural area, it may be fine.

Crafty Green Poet said...

This is a lovely post, its sad that some people seem to have no feeling for nature. I've just discovered your blog through Festival of the Trees and will browse a bit more now.

Terrell said...

Beautifully written, Julie. What a treat to find this Sunday afternoon.