Wednesday, July 21, 2010

If a Tree Falls in the Forest...

As I’ve mentioned, we recently moved, and are now living surrounded by redwoods. I am in love with the redwoods. One of my favorite things to do these days is to walk my lab, Stuart, up the steep road that zigzags through the trees.

The air smells delicious. Along with the redwoods, the fir, oak, and bay trees all mingle with a little wood smoke, sometimes a tinge of salty seaweed if there’s fog heading in from the Pacific. Walking through the dappled light, I get why fairy tales take place in forests, why the word enchanted often precedes the word forest. There’s magic in the air, sometimes even the feeling I’m stepping on sacred ground.

About ten years ago, a landslide ravaged the lot next to us. I’ve been told that redwoods fell like a line of dominos, one knocking down the other, pounding the earth below into muddy oblivion. A road collapsed. An old empty cabin and a couple of storage sheds ended up at different addresses altogether.

This, apparently, was not the result of an act of nature, but of some type of malfunction concerning a water tank cap. Despite the big screw up, the hill has healed, sans redwoods, into a stretch of sun-drenched acreage, full of brush too dense to walk through – mostly blackberry bushes, ferns, cattails, and young bays.

But hanging on, literally, for dear life, stood – or leaned is more accurate – a circle of seven redwoods at the edge, nearest the road. The landslide had moved them, but it hadn’t brought them down.

The writer in me saw them as a metaphor: a redwood family that had gone through some hard times when the earth got pulled out from under them ten years ago, but had hung on and managed to thrive, albeit at a somewhat disconcerting angle. An against-all-odds bravado type of lean. I could almost hear them say, "Yo Adrian. We did it!"

Recently, the road above their root system began buckling. When we sat out on our sunny deck, the trees creaked and swayed and leaned – a bit more, it seemed, every day.

Someone called the county. Men came out with their hardhats and clipboards and assessed the situation: Those trees had become as loose as a six-year-old’s front teeth. They had to come down. By the next morning I heard trucks. I heard saws. I heard a helluva lot of swearing.

Cutting down towering redwoods is not, evidently, a walk in the park.

A man knocked on my door. He told they would be cutting down the trees.

“That’s too bad,” I said.

He nodded. “Yeah. But they gotta come down. A storm. Wind. Someone could get killed.”

Craning my neck, I asked, “Which way will they fall?”

“The same way they’re leaning. Up the hill that-a-way.”

“Not this way?”


It was a still, foggy summer morning. “So,” I said. “If something goes wrong, say, a storm suddenly kicks in and the wind blows this way, you’ll, you know, yell ‘timber’?”

He smiled patiently. “Yeah. But don’t worry. Those trees aren’t coming anywhere near this place unless there’s a hurricane.”

I stood at the window and took pictures. There was no wind, but still, I worried. I worried about the birds that might be nesting in the branches. I worried about the deer and raccoons that might have dens on the hill. And I worried that I was trusting a complete stranger that the trees would not fall down on our roof. A complete stranger, who could have, for all I knew, just that morning begun his career in tree-cutting.

One guy went up and up and up in a cherry-picker basket, as far as the crane would go. The redwood still loomed high above him. Cherry trees barely graze a redwood’s knees. He took his buzzing saw to the tree. Leaning way out of the basket, he cut a wedge into the trunk. Then he sawed a bit more on the other side, and jumped back. There was a lot more yelling from below. The tree fell straight over, just like the man told me it would. Our whole house shook. Stuart barked and ran in from the other room and sat on my feet.

One by one, the trees came down while I watched. I understood that cutting them down was a safety measure, that even I would feel more comfortable sitting on our deck without their creaking and swaying that could one day give way to a huge SNAP. But I felt melancholy. Those redwoods had been a symbol of resilience for me. Of never, never, never, never giving up, as my friend Ellen has taught me. It has been one of those times in life when I can use those kinds of reminders. I know that a lot of us can these days.

But what was I supposed to make of this? Never, never, never, never give up? Withstand life’s landslides? Live and learn and learn how to lean? But don’t be surprised if someone comes along after all that and cuts you off at the knees?

See what I mean? Depressing stuff. So I decided that this was one of those times when, as a writer, I was simply here to bear witness. I didn’t need to apply a bunch of metaphors about tenacity. I didn’t need to interpret or plant my own symbols into this story. I just needed to tell it:

A tree fell in the forest. And I was there. I saw it. I heard it. Then six more fell. They did not go quietly. Each and every one made a thunderous sound.

End of story.

Until the other day, when Stuart and I were on our walk, and I saw something in the concrete. Now I'm letting this redwood have the last word:


  1. I'm glad you were there to share this. The fact that the trees didn't go quietly, that they had a few choice words to say at the end, is beautiful.

  2. I'm a tree lover and found your story about the felled redwood trees, hundreds of years old, very moving. I especially liked the last part. New life sprouting. Actually, Ellen quoted Winston Churchill's famous words to the Brits in WWII, "Never, never, never, never give up." But it can also apply to many people, hopeful writers, even trees, etc.

  3. @Suzanne: Thanks lil sis.

    @Penelope: Good to see you! Yep, that's a famous Churchill quote, and I guess I should have given him credit. Ellen's the one who reminds me, though. And sometimes I throw in a couple extra nevers for good measure. Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. A beautiful metaphor. I think we can't help but see them. Thankfully, our brains are wired to connect.

  5. See? You can't keep a good redwood or a good writer down.

    Here's another quote from the great naturalist, John Muir: The most direct way into the universe is through a forest.

  6. @chelo: Thanks. Unfortunately, my brain wiring needs daily doses of coffee in order to connect to anything.
    @ellen: Ohh, love that.

  7. I was just bemoaning facebook when I clicked on your profile, Sere, and was ecstatic to find your blog. I would read anything and everything you write, word for word, and still be hungry for more. Can I sign up to have you delivered?

  8. @jennifer: Thank you so much for your kind words. There's a subscribe button on the right, which should send you email alerts, along with place to sign in as a follower.