Chop! Chop! (An Ode to a Leopard Tree)

We chopped down a tree on the weekend. A really big tree. One of the biggest trees in our street as a matter of fact. It was in our front yard and had been in our front yard for at least as long as we’ve been in our house (17 years and counting). Perhaps it was even an ‘original in the area before all the houses were built’ tree, I’m not sure. All I know is that it was big. And it was BEAUTIFUL. It sheltered us from wind and storms and it shaded and protected us from the searingly hot summer sun.

We would lie in bed on a Sunday morning in our bedroom on the second storey of our house and look out into its lush, green canopy. I remember lying on the trampoline underneath it with all three of our kids when they were babies (they’re now 10, 8 and nearly 4) and watching as the native birds sat on the long branches, rested their tiny wings and sang their sweetly melodic birdy songs to each other. There was something magical about lying there in the blessedly cool, dappled shade, looking up and seeing all of the individual little leaves swaying and dancing in the breeze. It was almost like the leaves were having their own secret conversations metres above our heads, whispering wisely and nodding sagely to each other.

Our tree was home to birds, spiders, ants and no doubt all manner of other creatures and insects. The possums used it as a public thoroughfare to get from the powerlines at the front of our house onto our roof and I’m sure a snake or two had slithered its way up into it and along its branches at some time. Once upon a time it had been a whole tree with a majestic canopy, but over time as it grew (and grew and grew and grew), the canopy on the street side would be periodically lopped off by the electricity company so the branches wouldn’t interfere with the power lines and cut the power to our street.

At certain times of the year our tree would drop all of its leaves – and there were lots and lots of those tiny, whispering leaves. They would gradually turn brown and then all of a sudden, one day without warning, would fall absolutely everywhere. They would fall into our car engines, they would fall en masse into our gutters and into our neighbours’ gutters. They would even make their way inside our home, borne on warm spring and summer breezes through our open windows to settle on the floors inside. We didn’t really like the leaf dropping, or the brown, nut-hard seeds it would also drop from time to time, or the starkness of its empty branches until the leaves regrew, but the beauty and grandeur of it for the rest of the year always seemed to outweigh those relatively rare occurrences.

Fast forward to the end of last year when we finally decided (with some gentle encouragement) that our tree needed to go. Not only was our beauty starting to drop its leaves more often (which is apparently a sign of ill health), our gutters were shot because of all those tiny fallen leaves, and we were also having problems with its roots in the old clay pipes and drains of our house. So we made the decision. It took a long time to make the decision. It took an even longer time to decide who should be the one to chop it down. We got one quote and nearly choked. It costs a LOT of money to chop down a big tree. So we stalled for a while. We didn’t have that kind of money, and even if we did, we’d be damned if we were going to use it to chop down that tree.

The solution to our problem came in the form of our neighbours. Our neighbours, with whom we have spent many an evening with around fires on our street, celebrating countless food occasions, birthdays and sometimes just gathering for drinks for no particular reason, suggested they could help us out. We had a tree that needed to be removed, the street menfolk had chainsaws and loved to use them. It seemed an obvious answer to our dilemma. So I reluctantly agreed. But I only agreed because I know these men and I trust them. I’d trust them with my life, with my children’s lives, and so I trusted them to give our tree the farewell it deserved.

Tree Chopping Day dawned bright and beautiful. It was a picture perfect late winter’s morning – clear and cool with not even a hint of breeze. There was a sense of quiet anticipation in the air. Over creamy coffee and a hot breakfast, a plan of action was discussed, debated, agreed and settled. Chainsaws were sharpened, oiled, put aside in preparation. Ladders were raised, tested, dropped, put aside in preparation. There was no silliness, there was no bravado or braggadocio. These were men who were here to do a job. They weren’t cowboys trying to impress each other with whose chainsaw was the biggest or the loudest (though over the course of the day, we did learn about how chainsaws are rated – and no, the biggest chainsaw is not always the best). They didn’t need rules, they didn’t need policies and regulations and toolbox talks and hi-vis safety gear and bright orange witches hats and a foreman telling them what to do. They knew what needed to be done, so they got on and did it.

The time came to start. The ladder was climbed for the first time that day. Everyone stood, breathless, waiting for the first branch to come down. It finally did. And I cried. I shed a tear for our beautiful tree and all the things it had given us. I apologised to it and to nature for destroying such a magnificent thing. I hoped that somewhere on the great scorecard of life, the all-knowing and all-seeing scorekeeper was looking away or else otherwise occupied for the remainder of the day.

Throughout the course of the morning though, something began to emerge that replaced my sadness. I became witness to an altogether different phenomenon: I became a witness to man. To what it means to be a man, in its most basic form. I witnessed a group of men working together, testing their bodies physically and using their minds carefully to assess danger, keep safe and to achieve an ultimate purpose. I was a witness to a real life male bonding experience and it was really quite extraordinary. Difficult to define, yet so powerful and raw in its simplicity. Maybe it’s a carryover from the caveman days, but as a woman I instinctively recognised it for what it was and, subsequently, realised there was no place for me in it. (Which is odd, because I am a big believer in women’s rights, equality between the sexes and all that stuff.) It made me realise that there are some times in life when a man needs space to just be a man, with other men, in order to get something done. It’s not gay. It’s not weird. It doesn’t diminish me or my worth as a female. In fact, it has nothing to do with me at all. It’s a fundamentally human thing. Evolution, biology, whatever its actual name is I don’t know. All I know is that I saw it, I sensed it and it was a pretty profound thing.

The last branch to fall was of course the biggest. It was massive – a decent sized tree in itself. That too began with everyone holding their collective breath. The chainsawing seemed to go on forever – grind and grind and grind – it was almost as though our tree was taking one last, defiant stand against us – before the ground crew gave it one tug, two tugs, and before we knew it, the last branch hit the ground with a tremendous thud. Once it had fallen, there was a moment’s silence at the enormity of what had just happened, then a huge cheer erupted from all of us (most loudly probably from my neighbour, as it was his yard that the last lot of branches (and all the biggest ones) had fallen into. It was his house that those massive, tree-sized branches had brushed on their way down).

The day turned out to be largely incident-free, thank goodness. There was a handful of minor property casualties (a gutter or two, a couple of ladders, plants and sheets of iron), but everyone managed to keep all of their fingers and toes. Once the last branch had been cut up and placed on the pile, Tree Chopping Day was deemed complete, and a resounding success. Everyone made themselves comfortable in our driveway and we proceeded to turn the day into night with beers and pizza and music around a firepit. It was, for me, a perfect end to an unusually perfect day – and it seemed a strangely apt way for the street to farewell our beautiful tree.

Getting used to the empty space in our front yard will take some time. Getting used to driving up to our house and not being welcomed by that lush green canopy will take even more time. Though the physical body of our tree is gone, I am comforted by the knowledge that she and her memories will remain in our street, though in a different form, for a very, very long time.

We loved you, Tree. Thank you for the memories.

Kara xxoo