Once upon a time, a long time ago, three oak trees grew in front of our house. The trees (saplings, surely) were planted in the strip between street and sidewalk in the early 1900s, when forest became suburb and our neighborhood was built, three whole miles from the downtown city center.
By the time we arrived, 100 years later, the trees were tall and sprawling, providing both shade and privacy. Beneath their canopy was a woodland oasis of frogs and dappled sun, just enough light for the grand trio of Southern flowering bushes: azalea, gardenia, camellia.
They’re gone now, the trees.
At the tail end of summer 10 years ago (around the same time our neighborhood was designated a Level III Accredited Arboretum), the middle tree dropped a limb large enough to total our neighbor’s Suburban, and the trees had to go. Three arborists came to inspect and gave identical reports, along with admonishments about planting large trees in tiny median strips flanked by pavement.
Without its protective cover, our woodland withered. The azaleas burned, as did one of gardenias and, later, both camellia bushes. The frogs? Who knows.
In the press of direct sun what flourished most were weeds, seeded by bird droppings, that popped up in between tufts of monkey grass. The Southern misfits appeared: nut grass, Johnson grass, crabgrass, and all their companions.
Owing to the legacy of my mother, who loved gardening, I went to the local garden center, my mother’s second-favorite store (next to the book store), and asked for something that would feed the liriope spicata (I used its proper name, in Betty’s honor), but kill the invaders. Assured that he knew just the thing, the young associate (Ferd wasn’t there) sold me a bag of goods that almost killed the monkey grass and invited new weeds.
The following few summers were relentlessly hot. I abandoned any fantasy of a pretty and inviting front yard, gave up on prospects of a lush landscape. I was busy working, and driving carpool, and helping with homework, and cooking dinner. The hell with gardening.
And then the surviving gardenia – the one that had once stretched its summer fragrance 15 feet high, the one Bernard cut to the quick so it would be easier to pull out the root ball – suddenly sprouted an awkward shoot from its sharply trimmed trunk, the trunk we thought was dead.
The seedlings from our neighbors’ maples and crape myrtles, salvaged by Bernard and nestled in small clay pots by the side of the house, turned into saplings. Within a year they grew large enough to transplant. Bernard moved them to the front, where two of the oaks had been.
With a friend’s help, I applied to the neighborhood association for tree replacement – a program that started the year our trees were removed. We’d applied before and gotten no response. I can’t remember how the story came up, one day after Sunday afternoon yoga, but I do remember my friend saying: Do you really give up that easily?
We received a black gum tree, planted high in the yard and not the median. In time, the arborist said, the black gum would shelter the Japanese maple that Bernard had so carefully tended from its infancy.
For three summers now, the tree has grown. This summer, it was big and sturdy and private enough for a bird to make a home. By the end of next summer, it might offer a bit of afternoon shade.
I have watched all of this from my porch, in the mornings, drinking coffee before anyone in my house wakes. I’ve watched the green sprout and grow, rest and return, listening to the changing songs of birds in spring and summer and fall, reminded that things often take time and cannot be rushed. This is how it has been, will be.