For Five Trees

By Heather Pegas

1. Coastal Redwood

Our friend Karin planted the seedling in the ‘80s, right in the front yard, after her son was born. By the time he was thirty, the redwood had grown to be the most beautiful tree on the block, soaring above and shading half the street. Providing shelter for squirrels and nesting space for mockingbirds. Pushing its giant but shallow roots up under the driveway of the women next door, with whom Karin was perpetually in property disputes. 

The women next door produced a cease-and-desist order for that tree, and though Karin hired a lawyer and fought, it was sentenced to death. The weekend before the redwood was dismantled, she held a wake on the street for friends and neighbors. Even the women from next door came, and everyone threw them shade. 

Karin left the massive stump for all to see, an everyday memento of murder. For all I know, it sits there still, sprouting fairy rings. 

2. Pine

Later, when my husband and I moved to Los Angeles, there were no trees. Or not as many as I was used to, not as many as I wanted. I made it a point to stand in the shade of a tall tree whenever I could, especially the three large pines towering above the parking lot adjacent to my gym. They were unique to the neighborhood, perhaps a bit scrubby, but glorious to me. Dropping little cones, they reminded me of the forest. They were easily the tallest things in sight. 

One day, I was shocked to find two of my three trees gone. Stumped! In their places, a picnic table and some gravel.

I found out through a human-interest story in the free weekly that a young couple had raised some money and chopped down those trees. A photo showed them with a giggling toddler; they said they wanted spaces for children like their daughter to play. 

What happened then? 

Nothing. No playground appeared. 

There is gravel, and there is a picnic bench. It angers me whenever I pass through that empty, sun-scalded “park” where no child ever plays. 

3. Sequoia

We went to the Sierras that fall, though we knew the chances of being overcome by smoke and fire were great. But we loved being among trees, and had even been married under them. One wedding portrait shows us standing together under a giant sequoia in Grant Grove, and another shows our clasped and newly beringed hands against the orange, burled backdrop of sequoia skin. 

The fall we visited, the sequoias erupted in fire, flames burning ever closer to the biggest ones, the largest trees on earth. Shiny, insulated blankets—giant blankets—were deployed to protect them. 

I found myself checking the news each day of our vacation. Are they still there? Please tell me they’re there. And they are, those largest ones, though hundreds of others are not. 

They say sequoia seeds need fire to grow. That’s something, I suppose.

4. Mulberry

My mother is trying to save the mulberry tree. A volunteer, it grew rapidly from a mysterious stick right outside the living room window, in full view of my father’s chair. Bushy, beautiful, and shedding purple pods. My father loved to sit and look at birds eating fruit in that tree, especially during those last, hard months of his illness.

The tree was also sick—much too long with too little rain. Poor spindly branches, little ploofs of leaves that could not thrive. Sad birds, sad butterflies. 

My mother hired an arborist to fertilize the tree, willing it to be saved. But the power company entered the yard unseen, leaving a warning that a rotting branch was too near the lines, to chop it down. My mother called them in a panic. I’m trying to save that tree! she wailed.

The man on the phone was an arborist too, and he understood. Maybe the tree could be banded so it wouldn’t fall? But the answer was no, to cut away one side or chop it down entirely. My mother ordered it brutally pruned. 

What desecration, these small deforestations. 

Will my mother’s tree live? It doesn’t seem so, not to me. But I love her stubborn hope.

5. Aspen

In a graveyard in a canyon in September, I count 37 rings in a sliced-through stump. The most recent rings are the thinnest, so this tree was very thirsty, even before it was broken by rocks and snow. There are a thousand more like it.

Some of this tree’s brothers still stand, and I wonder what it’s like to see your family felled, understanding as you do that you are all one at the root.

That’s something we have yet to grasp. 

Avalanche. Like fires, floods, heats and colds, it’s all down to us. Though no one of us wants to take responsibility. 

Could we have saved you if we tried?

Leaves quaking, months after your death still changing green to yellow to orange, with all the cyclic shades and patterns in between. You’re preparing a final show for us, though we will never deserve it, or repay you. 

I witness burnt initials and hearts in your trunks (because we love! we love! we love!). And I see all your burls, 10,000 watchful, dying eyes upon us. 

I’m so sorry, I think. I’m sorry for all of it, for all of us. I’m sorry because I think I’ll miss you most of all.

About the author

Heather Pegas is a Los Angeles-based writer and grant professional whose essays have appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, Tiny Molecules, Longridge Review, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction was also a 2020 Editorial Board selection in Slag Glass City. She suffers from severe climate anxiety.

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