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After reading The Overstory by Richard Powers, I’ve paid a bit more attention to trees. It is suggested in the book that trees are sentient things, the same as animals, that they protect one another from danger, that they can alter their behaviors (like requiring less water during drought), and even communicate with one another and respond to the world around them. I don’t know if any of this is true. What I know is that when I go for a walk, I carry a stick with me, a product of a tree; that when I print something out, I use white paper, a product of trees; that when I get over heated when out-of-doors, I seek shade, thank you friend tree. Of late, I notice that there are more acorns on the ground than ever before. Perhaps, the trees in our neighborhood are aware of the destruction of vegetation caused by our tornado last spring and are compensating by creating more opportunities for replacement trees.
We bought our house not for the house but for the trees. Trees to the North. Trees to the East. Trees in the yards. Trees in the next door neighbor’s yard. Thick, unruly woods. Pines, oaks, sweet gums, and more pines. Those to the North separated us from the railroad track and a busy part of the university campus: the football field, the tennis courts, the women’s softball field, the outdoor track, the huge basketball complex, and all the parking. Those to the East again separated us not so much from student housing on campus and the busy thoroughfares feeding the University but from the two raucous frat houses, perched side-by-side with nothing but non-stop partying in the minds of the brothers.
In making the purchase, I asked the seller: --Who owns the woods? He answered. –All I know is they form a natural bird sanctuary. Who owns them? God knows.
I didn’t ask further. I should have.
My wife and I enjoyed our adventures into the woods to the East. The trees were mostly tall, stately pines, a few oaks, cedars, magnolias, gumballs, an occasional dead tree here and there, and lots of fallen logs. But there was more than trees in there. Loads of vines. Wisteria as thick as my wrist crawled up tree trunks and swung out and down, blooming with brilliant purple blossoms every spring. Then the underbrush, thick as any tropical jungle, entangled, smothering. Then ground cover, tons of poison oak and such like. Then, the detritus. Again, tons of it. Literally tons: fenders from old cars, fallen telephone poles, metal rods, trash by the garbage pail (thanks to decades of frat brother abuse), broken bed springs, old fence posts with metal piping for gates (yes, once upon a time, the woods had been a pasture, believe it or not, and who knows what before that), and of course, the electrical and cable lines that paralleled the gas and water lines that crossed the property to the fraternity houses.
There’s one thing for certain: the trees were definitely used for fraternal hazing. More on that in a bit.
The woods to the North we left alone. Our back chain-link fence barred entry and we didn’t explore much beyond it. These trees were less majestic since it seemed the land had been clear-cut long before we moved in and were replaced not by plantation but by happenstance: a mélange of sizes, shapes, and types. Beyond the fence line, the land drops drastically into an overgrown coulee until it rises to the edge of the railroad track. The best thing about the North woods: they help absorb the racket of the passing trains, which seem to fly past our estate with no regard for speed regulations. For this quelling of noise, we’re thankful. Our next door neighbor who had lived in the vicinity of the forest for most of his adult life told tales of slower moving trains dropping vagrants along the way, with these guys forming hobo camps within a stone’s throw of our back door. That situation no longer existed, thank God, by the time we took possession.
After living in our house for several years, I finally wandered into the Parish land-use office and asked about the North woods. I learned that no one owns them, that the plot of land some 60 yards wide from our property line to the next street over a quarter of a mile away had never been platted and thus, belong to no one. I was told: put up a fence and in twenty years, the property could be ours. So, my neighbor and I put up a fence of metal standards and coated metal wire. It’s still there, saggy and broken.
The trees in our front, side, and back yards are the cream of the crop: 60 foot tall pines with two of them, one in front and one to the side, at least six feet in diameter at the base. These giants hang over our house like sentinels, prompting us, upon occasion, to worry about the strength of the storms that swoosh our way. But they have stood the test of nature and are still there, guarding our home just like they are supposed to do.
The trees to the East became ours, eventually. It wasn’t easy to salvage them and protect our home from being invaded by an entrepreneur from Shreveport. Our first indication that something was up was the series of surveying teams that entered the woods, leaving their markings attached to sharpened sticks hammered into the ground. I checked with the land-use office again and found that an enterprise from out of town had purchased the four-plus acre copse of woods and had already devised specs to construct five new houses (not homes, shacks actually) butting up against our property, which I was told actually went no further than the edge of our drive. Naturally, we had nurtured the grounds from the edge of the driveway to the inner edges of the forest, had a small tool shed nestled to the East, and of course our natural affection for the trees that shielded us from the rest of Ruston. It was a shock, seeing the drawings, and realizing the nature of the invasion that was on its way: one of the shacks would have been within thirty feet of our drive with a clear, unobstructed view into our home, which is characterized by floor to ceiling windows on the East side.
As it developed, the entrepreneurs from Shreveport ran into the stalwart ministers of growth that rule the city of Ruston: they were momentarily stymied in their plans as access to the proposed constructions became a serious concern. This gave us the opportunity to step forth and inquire about another option: our purchasing the woods to our East for our own use. Of course, the construction company had already made major investments in the property, not the least being its actual purchase, but with a reticent city council and with the Neighborhood Watch Association firmly in opposition to the new housing, the entrepreneurs were willing to talk to us. We asked what it would take; they told us. We gulped. The amount was huge. We reviewed our prospects. We without quibble accepted their asking price, which was the next thing to absurd. It would be nice and convenient to say that this was the end of the matter, but nothing ever goes as easily as one expects. The process was much too complex for a simple resolution.
The entrepreneurs (I’ll call them the “Halls”) attempted to work collegially with the city and the Neighborhood Organization. Ideas were exchanged, promises made, concerns addressed, and so forth. The matter of the access for building new houses was brought before the city council; we attended. It didn’t go well. The Halls felt that they had been lied to, cheated, even criminally defamed by the actions of both the city and the Neighborhood Organization. And, most likely, us as prospective alternatives. I received a near hysterical telephone call from Mrs. Hall following one of the city council meetings, screaming that she and her company were going to come in and clear cut the entire four acres of trees and leave us with an unobstructed view not only of the two frat houses, but of the center of campus and the city of Ruston beyond. We were horrified. That would have been disastrous, especially if the Halls moved forward with their plans to build the five houses. We pleaded. We placated. We prayed. I suppose one of these tactics worked—most likely all of them combined. The Halls’ anger subsided, to a degree; they took our money, and returned to their home turf in Shreveport with the notion of leaving Ruston to its own devices. The end result: we own a shabby stretch of woods and our piece of mind. Those trees are our buffer. Our own bird sanctuary.
Once the copse was ours, we felt obliged to do something with it: namely, clean it up. On our property, directly behind the Kappa Alpha frat house was a ramshackled shack with a concrete floor, crumbling walls, and no roof to speak of. Inside this construct were a destroyed set of bed springs and something that once upon a time might have served as a mattress, a couple of broken folding chairs, and decades of emptied beer bottles and cans, candy wrappers, plastic junk, and other debris that had been tossed aside as if the shack had a singular purpose: a trash heap. And it wasn’t just inside the building: the junk was scattered throughout the woods. Remove a bottle and find another underneath it, and then another, and another. What exasperated us was that the section of our property continued to be used even after the purchase, and no amount of cajoling helped: talk to one group of KA’s and matters were curtailed for a few weeks. The turn-over within the organization seemed to be monthly if not weekly, and each new group arrived on site with the notion that the woods behind their house belonged to them and had one purpose: their abuse.
After lugging sack after sack of debris from that back edge of the woods, we began simply tossing the bottles and cans back over the small retaining wall that separated our properties, assuming they would be gathered and disposed of by the fraternity. Nope. That was not the way the brothers did business.
We hired a woodsman to remove some dead and dying pines (victims of pine beetles) and asked if he would extend his labors to the removal of the shack. He agreed. Thus, we demolished the principal attraction of the brother’s use of our property. Not so fast. They had other resources. We found an old mattress lying in the woods, a hammock stretched between two pines, and several folding chairs with a beer cooler in between them: inside the cooler, the skeletal remains of catfish, crawling with maggots. We hauled all of this stuff and more to the city dump. Then, I found a special beer can ten feet or so on our property. It had been riddled by sharp objects. I knew instantly what I had in my possession: an item that had been used rather recently for target practice, even though the firing of weapons within the city limits is against the law. Obviously, the boys had placed the can on the top of the retaining wall and fired at it from their back yard. The line of fire? Through the woods and directly at our home. This proved to be too much for us. I called the police. An officer arrived. He recognized instantly the cause for the perforated canister and the danger that the target practice posed not only to us but to the rest of the community. Sure, the woods between the retaining wall and our drive was thick, but the trees did not form an impenetrable wall. The policeman confronted the fraternity brothers: of course, they knew nothing of any target practice and even if such could have happened from their back yard, the pistol had to have been a harmless pellet gun. Regardless of their disclaimers and excuses, the officer made it clear that such activity if repeated would result in the president of the organization along with the rest of his officers and the faculty advisor from the University being arrested for illegal firearm discharge. We have not found any more practice targets after that.
Before leaving the frat boys behind, let me report another discovery. In the middle of the woods was what appeared to be a chicken coop of some kind. It consisted of a six by six slab of concrete, the remainder of chicken wire fencing around the outer edges of the slab, and a rotting and collapsed roof. We cleared the debris away, revealing a series of names etched into the concrete slab, obviously embedded while the concrete was wet. The most curious aspect of this discovery was the thin piece of leather attached to the chicken wire: it was about ten inches long and contained a clasp on one end, allowing the leather to become a containment device. It was exactly the right size and length to fit around a person’s wrist. It did not take much imagination to realize: this construct had surely been devised by the fraternity for use in and during initiations. I could easily envision a freshman pledge being intoxicated, blindfolded, and then led into the woods where he would be forced inside the coop and attached to the wiring with leather bands, probably left for the night to contemplate the logic of joining a fraternity in the first place.
Not too long ago, my wife met me as I came home from work, saying: “I want to show you something.” The something she revealed was indeed remarkable. On her own, she had cleared a footpath through the woods that began at our tool shed and looped through the forest, winding up near the cul-de-sac of our street and then back to the shed. It was exactly a quarter of a mile long and provided a restful, inviting avenue for us and our visitors. It turned the woods into a park, to be serviceable throughout the year. She had done the work alone, giving no indication of her intention until it was finished. And the trail became our treasure, one that we now miss.
On April 25, 2019, 1:00 a.m., I was startled awake by an announcement being made over my smart phone. I could hear the storm sirens blaring their warnings throughout our neighborhood. Outside, the sounds of a major storm with vicious winds enhanced both warnings: it was time to seek safety even though we were safely inside. I called to my wife to wake up and join me in the bathroom, our pre-determined safe zone, that obviously we were being hit. She responded with a groggy “Okay” before she turned over and fell back asleep. I stood in our smaller bathroom, listening to the horrors of the wind and rain raging outside. I could hear trees snapping and crashing to the ground. I have heard it said that a tornado sounds like a train passing by. But this sounded nothing like a train. It sounded like an angry sky plunging its venom onto and through the ground. I felt the walls of the house quiver. I heard debris being tossed with viciousness against the outer walls. I could feel myself, quivering along with the structure of our home. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped. The tornado had moved on, leaving a pelting rain behind. In all, though it felt as if we had been in the eye of the storm for half an hour, the lapse of time was less than two minutes.
I noticed that all electrical units within the house were silent. I turned on an overhead light in the bathroom. Nothing happened. I wandered down the hall into the kitchen area, where our eastern wall was composed of floor-to-ceiling windows. Outside, I noticed that a strange creature, adorned in bright blue, was stretched out in the middle of our drive. Beyond that and closer to the edge of the woods was another creature, this one black. I stepped into our carport and confirmed that the two creatures were actually our trash bins that had been tossed like kites. Near where they had been parked beside the carport was a massive branch from the front pine: it had crashed to the ground inches from the edge of the carport. Debris from the trash cans was scattered across the yard. Then, I noticed that the telephone pole at the cul-de-sac had toppled onto our neighbor’s carport, crushing the two automobiles parked there. And in our back yard, one of our towering pines had collapsed across our side-yard fence and was being held aloft by the high electrical wires. Then I noticed the sounds of the night: there were none. I fully expected there to be emergency vehicles racing through city streets. Not a one. The storm had continued on its path, leaving a worrying silence behind.
With morning light, it was possible to access the true wrath of the storm: it was massive. First, our house. Very little damage had been caused. We eventually arranged for an insurance adjuster to visit us and offer an evaluation of damage to our roof. We were truly lucky to be unharmed since every house on the other side of our street had been significantly deformed. We eventually had the roof of our shed replaced. Of course, the tree in our backyard had to be removed. And the tool shed, strangely, had been lifted from its foundation, moved approximately six inches, and then dropped back to the ground.
A note about this storm. There is a section of town, the area where we live, that could rightfully be called the garden center of our small city: old, established, and graced by the canopy of towering oaks and pines. The storm destroyed that. The swath of the funnel though narrow had ravaged the landscape, destroying dozens of homes, clearing trees, smashing businesses, and killing two citizens, a mother and her high school son. The damage to our home was remarkably limited. But not so regarding our woods to the East. Over half of the trees had been snapped or leveled, leaving our property a war zone of destroyed timber, opening our property to the lights and sounds of the city beyond. Once it, the tornado, left our property, it jumped the railroad tracks, leveled the softball and baseball fields, twisted the tennis courts, blew out a number of windows in the health and wellness center, and continued on to the interstate highway, smashing a motel, leveling a filling station, a bank, and a stand-alone restaurant, decapitating several business establishments, and finally lifting back into the sky as it reached the Northeastern section of town. In all, the damage estimates ranged in the millions. And many felt fortunate that there were only two fatalities, though I’m sure all would agree: two is two too many.
Enough about the damn tornado. There were enough trees left standing in our East woods for us to continue to nurture them. Restoring the copse to health continues to be an on-going concern. Every week, my wife builds a huge pile of tree-oriented debris at the end of our street, debris that is hauled away by city trucks. She is planning even as I write this to sow the woods (which she now refers to as “the meadow”) with wildflower seeds her brother had sent to us from his home in Arizona. We religiously collect as many acorns as we can and toss them into the meadow, hoping that one or two of them will take root and provide us with an eventually rejuvenated woods. Recently, the “Retreet” Project planted four lovely saplings on our property: a redbud, a Canadian maple, a pecan, and an oak. These, along with the new growth that we continue to find as spring once again opens the earth’s coffers, will move matters forward to the restoration of nature’s finest creation: a well-managed, high canopied forest for all to enjoy for decades to come.
Kenneth Robbins is a past recipient of the AWP Novel Award, the Toni Morrison Prize for Fiction, and the Charles Getchell New Play Award. His stories, poems, essays, and memoirs have been published throughout the US, Canada, Great Britain, Japan, and Denmark. Currently he teaches within the Honors Program at Louisiana Tech University.