I KILLED a tree recently and I’m not sorry. I killed the tree, an ailanthus, before it killed me, and I did it in tandem with another murder: my neighbor’s towering elm. We plotted together.
That’s not saying I didn’t mourn the act, carried out by hired hands. That I didn’t know such things are taboo. Trees, even invasive and sick ones, produce oxygen, give shade, store carbon. Urban inner-city trees, such as our two, are especially prized when they can stand up to compacted soil, pavement, pollution, human detritus and animal waste. Amazing so many manage to survive.
In theory, an owner here doesn’t need official permission to take one down on private property. The exception in Washington DC, my home, is a so-called heritage tree—old growths of great girth, 100 inches circumference or more—which generally are protected by law.
My big fat dirty ailanthus and my neighbor’s elm each measured 106.81 inches, baffling precision for a complex formula. His was a tree to cherish, spreading its canopy elegantly over our rooftops and halfway across the street. Alas, elms also are favored by a mean beetle that carries a damaging fungus, the so-called Dutch elm disease, named for the country where it was first identified.
The ailanthus, by contrast, is recognized universally as an invasive scourge of little redeeming value except it is fast-growing and nearly indestructible. It sends out sprouts indiscriminately and often, even after being cut down. (It’s also known as the “tree of heaven” because of its great reach upward. And, yes, the name was a metaphor for struggling immigrant life portrayed in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, title of a 1943 American novel and later a movie.)
My neighbor and I had paid a commercial firm dearly through the years to keep our trees alive—in theory. Who doesn’t want cooling shade under a hot summer sun?
Then came a spring storm that sent a supposedly healthy ailanthus limb crashing down onto my patio, mangling a newly bought wrought-iron chaise longue and just barely missing my house. An omen if ever there was one. I shuddered recalling the $20,000 estimate once given me as the cost of removal, primarily because of its location in a back yard with limited access to the street.
About the same time, my neighbor asked an “arborist consultant” (yes, such a thing exists) to advise him about the wisdom of continuing to feed nutrients to an elm that he thought showed some troublesome signs on its trunk. Sure enough, the beetle was winning. Treatment was experimental in Holland and elsewhere, but no cure was guaranteed. The arborist at the company recommended by the consultant—RTEC Tree Care in Virginia, which looks after trees on the Capitol lawn and National Mall—suggested we could each save considerable money by taking down the two trees together. He was right: Together the damage came to a little under $10,000. It would have been more to have the stumps dug out.
That’s when the heritage issue came up. A local Ward 6 arborist, employee of the DC Urban Forestry Administration, had to testify that our trees were hazardous to the public’s well-being. But since mine was on the city’s published list of undesirable invasive species, I probably didn’t need his report, he said—not unless neighbors complained about a sudden loss of shade.
Working with a bureaucracy in a pandemic to arrange permits isn’t easy. RETC managed to fix a date with DC’s Transportation Department to close the block, but a forecast of wind and rain forced a cancellation.
Two weeks later, the largest crane I’ve ever seen rumbled up at dawn, planting itself on the street along with auxiliary trucks and crew. A burly conductor directed this steel contraption with the console’s buttons, guiding its giant arm in wide sweeps across houses two and three stories high. A computer aboard helped gauge with impressive precision how limbs weighing as much as two tons each could be landed safely. Each move was done in coordination with a crew on ropes wielding chain saws as deftly as scissors, in the air and on the ground.
No better show this season than most movies and Zoom sessions, I’ll wager.
“It’s all physics,” said RTEC arborist Jim, as if that explained the dynamics involved.
The elm disappeared first, the ailanthus after lunch. Wood that wasn’t ground up at once was hauled away. By 3pm, all that remained were naked stumps barely a foot high. A sad sight for an elm that had spent its life enlivening the sky and harboring wildlife. Its cut was clean and solid.
Not so the ailanthus, whose stump revealed a deep hollow full of decay. I plopped a large potted palm inside the hole to cover the gap. I liked the idea of having a decorative Ikea plant preening in a space recently occupied by my unruly specimen, a pesky dangerous overgrown weed. Come winter, I’ll substitute a fake version.
Sic transit gloria mundi.