The morning after the neighbors cut down the tree, my yard was quiet. The crows that for the last 15 years had woken me every morning like an alarm clock were gone. A few days before, when the elm tree still stood in my neighbor’s yard, I sat in the predawn light drinking coffee and watching hundreds of birds fly over my house. Crows tossed about like balls in the sky, a necklace of Canada geese flowed past my vision, and songbirds jangled in the bushes. The cacophony they made was loud and wondrous and I loved it.
Now my house rang with silence, and loneliness crept over me. As I stood by the window, avoiding at the gap in the sky where the tree used to be, I could hear the crows in the redwoods several blocks away–a party that moved houses. They had no reason to come here now.
The elm tree was enormous, 70 feet tall with a spread of 20 or 30 feet. It filled my neighbor’s yard, its branches fanning over their house. I don’t know how old it was, or if it was there before their home was built in 1960. For years, I lived in harmony with the tree, as I lived in harmony with the neighbors, an older couple, the husband a musician whose music filtered through our windows on summer days. The tree provided afternoon shade, shielding us from the California heat. I could tell the time of day by looking at its shadow and the time of year by looking at its leaves.
More than that, the tree attracted birds. I’ve counted over 30 species. Woodpeckers hammered the tree in the morning. Titmice tinkled like bells among its leaves and cedar waxwings swooped from its limbs to gulp berries from my Japanese privet. Blue birds, red house finches, and goldfinches flitted like sparkling jewels. Hummingbirds sipped from my lemon blossoms. When voles became a problem in my garden, owls hooted in the tree at night. A single red-tailed hawk, a predator to many, could clear the yard by lighting on a branch.
The best time was winter, when crows and blackbirds appeared in the tree. For years, my husband and I sat on the porch swing in the evening and watched blackbirds make undulating patterns above our heads. As my son ran through the grass, we cuddled under a blanket, surrounded by life. Then my neighbor got seriously ill. His wife responded by removing everything old in her yard: the fence, fruit trees, the mounding Algerian ivy by the garage. She told my husband she was afraid the elm would fall on her house, although I’ve never seen so much as a broken branch. I worried about the tree. One day, a neon X appeared on its trunk, but it was just the electrical company marking it to be trimmed. I relaxed. Her husband got better. Things seemed to continue as before.
Then one afternoon, the sounds of chainsaws kept interrupting my work flow. I went outside to discover workers cutting down the tree. A man told me they were taking it out completely and he didn’t know why. As we spoke, a giant branch came off and swung down on ropes, fast. The men shouted as it hit the ground with a thump. I could see the buds of spring leaves that would never unfurl. It took four days to cut down the tree. My yard is flooded with sunlight now; my shade plants already look weathered.
The elm tree was a wild thing in my neighborhood. Now my street is ordinary. Crows fly over my yard, but never stop. I miss the mourning doves cooing in the dawn. I miss the bird that made a sound like a tiny ray gun: “pew-pew! pew-pew.”
But the thing I miss the most is the joy the tree brought us. Once, when my son was a toddler, my husband and I were sitting on the porch, watching birds swoop and dart overhead. Suddenly, a flock of blackbirds rose from the tree, stretching into a long funnel and streaming upwards like smoke. My son ran below them and swung out his arms. “Pick me up!” he shouted at the birds. “Pick me up and take me with you!”
Joy Lanzendorfer is the author of the novel Right Back Where We Started From. Other work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Raritan, the Atlantic, NPR, Ploughshares, and Poetry Foundation.
featured photo by Joy Lanzendorfer