In late June, I hosted a small gathering of friends within the bounds of pandemic safety recommendations. The evening felt full of energy, though only four of us shared it. The tongue-in-cheek saying goes, “Two’s company, three’s a crowd,” but we’re isolated so much these days and a small group is a welcome indulgence.
The next morning, I took a book outside and saw the aftermath of the soiree. Beer cans littered the yard, fallen off the table in the early morning hours. The patio showed an alternating pattern of their bright aluminum and the tiny seed pods from the hackberry trees that shade the yard. I settled into a seat, my two dogs sniffing near my feet. When the wind blew, I looked up to see trees bending at the middle and dancing to their own rustling song above my roof. Nature reclaimed territory after my party’s interruption to the natural order. Birds chirped loudly.
I am illiterate when it comes to birds, though I’ve newly come to love them. I used to begrudge the birds and their early morning racket until my boyfriend started pointing out lovely birdie things. He showed me a video of a tiny, plump Kookaburra singing—a bird he loves from his Australian childhood. Now I notice the beautiful breast of a bluejay in the park, a cardinal’s red flash through the yard, and a sweet nest with tiny blue eggs in my front door wreath.
Between frantic bird calls I heard the wind move the hackberry trees, the fluid swimming of their branches, an undulation I recognized from my childhood near the ocean. I watched the hackberries, moving like seaweed’s slippery tendrils waving in salty depths. I thought, This may be the last time I will see them in this particular splendor.
I recently called a “tree man.” After this spring’s series of tornadoes, I’ve feared that one of the trees in my yard will end up toppled on my head in the middle of the night. When the arborist came to assess the property, he taught me a term I didn’t know, dripline. (I’m amused that even the official terminology seems oceanic.) When you look at a tree, the farthest reach of their branches is also quite logically the farthest they may drip water. I think of how warm rain dots the patio in the spring. I imagine the dripline as plops of drops I could see in three-sixty surrounding each tree, a shadow of their granular life rings. The tree man told me that the root systems of trees mirror their branch formations, and so the dripline reveals the extent of the tree beneath the earth, too.
On a breezy day, the normal, sleepy sway of the trees is soothing, and I love to watch them. But in a storm, the hackberries bend and buck above my house. I know now that roots swim through the ground below, grasping as far as the dripline in buried reflection of the branches bouncing above. After talking to the arborist, I wasn’t just afraid that my house would make a soft landing for a fallen hackberry; I feared the root system would damage my foundation. If I am to have peace of mind, one of my beautiful trees must go.
As a child, I found comfort in breaking from the edge of land, from the verge of humanity. Past the breakers, the Pacific was a gentle lullaby to a young body numbed with cold. Shoreline dives to dodge crashing waves inculcate any swimmer to the sea’s severe water temperature, often in the fifties even in summertime. By the time I passed the foaming tips and made it to steady blue, the noise of crowded beaches disappeared, and freezing seawater felt tepid on freckled shoulders. I was alone, only the swish of the water and the call of the gulls to contend for my attention. I floated without fear, unless a passing seaweed’s tangle grasped my ankle. I flinched when slimy pods touched my toes—Was it a shark? A stingray? A panicky reach down always revealed just a patch of kelp floating through. It is in such solitary places that our anxieties are released, thoughts bobbing to the surface with us, perhaps to float away on the tide.
The seaweed that scared me as a little girl is Sargassum agardhianum, a naturally occurring plant off the California coastline. Invasive species have made their home in those waters now, drowning out the seaweed that I found so offensive. Around five years ago, scientists determined that ninety percent of the kelp forest was decimated, a climate change casualty. Now when I return to visit, I am likely to miss seeing the brown water weeds all together. As the seaweed dies, the waters hush into stillness.
I am tempted to conflate my experience of inner peace in the outdoors with an expectation of external quiet. But silence is not natural to nature—my childhood swims were noisy affairs. The rush of the water, the cawing of gulls, and the even rhythm of my breath matched to each stroke was a soundtrack to calm anxious thoughts. Now, my white noise machine plays ocean waves at night to drown out city sounds. I beckon earth’s natural song to soothe me to sleep.
The hackberries are pest trees that welcome diseases and propagate quickly. They create such beautiful shade, but they’ve been a constant irritant as long as I have lived here. Much like the sea grasses choking out the California seaweeds, hackberry trees damage growth possibilities for healthier links in the native Tennessee ecosystem. I once dreamt of removing all of mine and planting beautiful Magnolias, but I quickly deferred my landscaping plans after learning the potential price. Soon, though, the arborist will remove one that is a danger to my house. I will rest more easily, and I will miss the shade of the hackberry we kill.
Maybe the yard aviary was inspired by the previous evening’s festive atmosphere, because the birds squawked with an unusual extra energy that day. The trees were louder than usual, and I could almost hear them clinking their wine glasses with one another as they mingled above, a last hurrah for their soon-to-be-fallen friend.
The organic sounds from the yard were so loud that morning that they nearly blocked the sound of busy traffic from the nearby main road. The outdoors is crowded with living things, all reminding each other they exist. Hackberries fight sister trees to take root, and ants creep through gardens to destroy budding squash. Seaweed invaders kill their cousins, and fish die in deoxygenated waters. Nature’s punishing chaos provides respite from human mundanity.
I find sweetness in the brutal carrying-on all around, perhaps because the competition of the earth has never before registered to me as deadly. I realize that wildlife announces its intentions boldly, but we humans are near-silent killers. My hackberry will have such little warning the morning he is cut down—the quick crank of the saws turning on and then, suddenly, the growth rings of his life exposed in funereal tribute.
He is not the first tree I will have killed, although he is the most offensive in some ways. I’ve cut down saplings in inconvenient locations and plucked small seedlings before they could truly root. Minor transgressions against my yard aesthetic. This tree’s arc above the roof is pleasing, but his potential for destruction puts him at odds with me. Like a part of the natural order, I’m fighting for space in the yard and proclaiming my living. I am become a noisy thing too, both loving sister and deadly cousin. When the tree falls and I see the hackberry die, I will grieve and sleep soundly.