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.