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King of Trees

By Nelson Handel


"Cut your own wood. It will warm you twice." -Henry David Thoreau

I never dreamed of owning a home; I dreamed of owning roses. Raised in apartments, I craved land, not buildings. Our accountant's plea for more deductions coupled with my in-laws' down-payment gift coerced me into joining the gentry. "Squire Nelson," my brother joked, "master of all he sees." He knows how nearsighted I am. My wife and I had purchased the smallest house on the smallest lot on our favorite hill. Its only arable land was a 10-foot strip of setback between our living room and the street, 300 square feet almost entirely shaded by a huge tree. The worst conditions for a garden--death for the dream of roses. Stubbornly, I planted them anyway. 'Voodoo'. 'Altissimo'. 'Peace'. I longed for Peace.

That gnarled old carob tree had shed her crunchy pods across the land for 80 years before we bought her. Installed when Los Angeles was a barren, low-desert wilderness, she was a rarity in a city only cultivated in this century. A noble old girl, she recalled the oaks and maples that had filled my northern New Jersey childhood. The scant woods behind our first-ring-suburban apartment afforded me countless hours of secret solitude and fantasy. I played Robin Hood, King Arthur, and conjured the Brothers Grimm. In each trunk lived the Lorax, and I, too, learned to speak for the trees.

But she worried me, this carob, now that I owned her. One large limb extended precariously over my roof and, overall, she looked pale and sickly. Dire predictions of El Niño, the eleventh plague, brought nightmarish images of rain-soaked boughs embedded violently in my attic.

So I summoned the Tree King, an arborist I found in the Yellow Pages. The fanciful, Black Forest-ness of the name appealed to me. The Tree King would come and all would be well.

The Tree King turned out to be a hairy little guy named Phil. Glued to his hand was a cell phone/radio that allowed him to receive calls and radio his office simultaneously, which he did almost constantly throughout my audience, when he wasn't gesturing and pointing with its antenna. True to his forest roots, Phil drove a Gremlin.

He recited a catalog of ligneous afflictions--fire blight, gummosis, two-horned woodborers, termites, ants--frightening contagions that seemed to portend the imminent deforestation of the entire neighborhood. He was a warm-hearted man and loved trees. Unprompted, he spoke at great length of their transcendental qualities. But, Phil concluded, for the good of the kingdom the old lady must go. He roared off in a cloud of gremlin dust.

I agonized for days, torn between memories of my semi-sylvan childhood and the responsibility to protect my grown-up home. Ownership seemed an ailment in itself, eating away at the romance of my youth. I sat for hours in the carob shade furiously channeling passages by Joyce Kilmer, Cat Stevens, Dr. Seuss--anything to stop me from calling the King. My spindly, bloomless roses frowned. Squirrels stared.

It was nature versus nurture, but nature had no cell-phone.

They didn't cut her down so much as dismantle her. Chunk by chunk, log by limb, the King's men power-tooled her to mulchable bits. Determined to salvage something organic from this arborous destruction, I requested that they split the logs for firewood. This, too, was a massacre. Their hydraulic wedge simply squeezed until each log exploded into hearth-sized pieces. There was no poetry in this death.

But in the quiet that followed, nature rediscovered her miraculous voice. The summer sun flooded our front yard, and my long-envisaged roses exploded in a silent parade of color and scent. Liberated from the carob's gloom, bulbs and grasses and vines burst to life. Peace was at hand and our tiny yard became a festival. We celebrated.

The hewn carob wood, left to season through the summer, burned beautifully that winter, filling our home with its chocolaty warmth. And come spring, we witnessed a resurrection. Nestled in the decaying sawdust surrounding the stump, a volunteer sunflower arose. Not a lone blossom, but a 10-foot-tall Sunflower Tree with scores of blooms drinking in the warm rays of the sun. Passing drivers stopped to take pictures. No one had ever seen anything like it.

The old lady was reborn in effluence. Nature taught once again of its humbling power. And somewhere in the yellow blossom's brilliance, the Lorax had the last laugh.

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