Nonfiction

Blue Spruce, Madison WI, photograph by Sally Buffington

A Case of the Blues

My hand was on the phone, but I couldn’t bring myself to make the call.

I had memorized the number of Advantage Tree, a service highly recommended by friends and neighbors as the one to do the job of taking down my blue spruces. I had talked with the neighbor whose property backed up to mine. He loved the spruces too. They afforded him the same privacy they gave me, and he found them beautiful.

Still Dahl said, “If you really have to take the trees down, the cutters can use my driveway to get to them more easily.”

Everything was in place for the removal, but I could not make myself punch in the numbers that would signal their demise. Yes, I had a bad case of the blues; if I had been born with banjo-playing fingers I would have started strumming and wailing.

I had planted the blue spruces 25 years ago when my partner and I first moved to Columbine Drive and Country Meadows. Our new home was in a development on the site of an old horse farm. No trees had been removed to build the house, and no trees remained after construction. I had a clean slate and space to design a perennial garden while my partner focused on vegetables.

On a late August afternoon shortly after we moved in, I called Pat, the local landscaper, the one all the other residents in the slowly evolving neighborhood used, the one who actually lived in the neighborhood and had an investment in its appearance. The one with strong opinions.

I also had strong opinions. I wanted a line of blue spruces along the back of my property, to mark the boundary between my yard and my neighbor’s, and to create the backdrop for the border garden I would plant in front of them. I loved the color blue and the droop of spruce and the fact that all year long they would announce, “This is mine, that is yours, and here’s a garden.”  Besides, no one else in the neighborhood had blue spruce in their yard.

While impressed by my choice of a row of blue spruce as boundary marker and backdrop maker, Pat was not impressed by the number of trees I wanted or the spacing I proposed between them. I insisted on four trees spaced so that, at maturity, their bottom branches would just touch. Pat insisted on six trees, planted close enough together to create a “finished” look the instant they were planted.

“It will be years before their bottom branches reach each other,” Pat told me, his Irish-inflected voice rising with each remonstrance. “You will not be happy with the look of trees planted so far apart. No one is.”

I insisted, my voice on a rising curve as well, that I was not like his other customers. I did not need the instant gratification of a mature look upon installation. Indeed, I did not want it because I considered the need for instant gratification one of the worst aspects of contemporary American culture, and I had no intention of supporting this madness. I told him that, instead, I was planting for the future, thinking forward to the seventh generation. If trees were planted too close together when young, they would soon tangle into one another and need to be taken down. In fact, I went on, relying on the hyperbole that was my mother tongue, such practice was a form of arborcide. I planned to model good planting practices, to showcase how to manage the space between the trees while they were maturing, and so to be an example to the whole neighborhood of how things should be done.

I was about to describe to Pat the punishments Druids meted out to those who harmed trees and to suggest I might metaphorically inflict them on him, when he held up his hand to stop me. Later that week he set in four beautiful ‘Kosteri’  blue spruces, spaced just the right distance apart.

As they grew so did my investment in them as a signature plant, signaling my skills as a garden designer and my fierceness about doing things the right way. They offered me the chance to expostulate to clients of my small perennial garden design business and to visitors to my garden on the need to plant for the future, not the present—the need to take the long view, which prioritized something other than a human being’s immediate gratification. Besides, they were beautiful.

Some years after planting the blue spruces, a freak September afternoon tornado ripped a channel through our patio garden and found in its path my Callery pear. I had planted this tree to provide shade for the patio in the afternoon, but soon discovered that it had glorious fall foliage and wee fruits that fed the birds all winter long. As I turned my downed tree into stacks of branches and chunks of wood to place by the road for the town to remove, I could see that its fall foliage was even more lovely than I had known. Each leaf, gray-green on the back, maroon and orange and yellow on top, was intricately patterned, almost round but with scalloped edges. For the first time I noticed the fuzzy matte finish of its gray-green yellowish fruit. Mourning the pear tree whose beauty I was just beginning to take in fully, I swore an oath to myself that I would have to leave Columbine Drive if anything were to kill my still more beloved spruces. I would not attempt to survive their loss.

Continuing to grow, the spruces formed a stunning back border for the garden I built in front of them. All my neighbors admired them. The trees also hid the sailboat Dahl kept parked in his driveway, the gift of a spouse who perhaps had not thought things through very carefully. My spruces kept us civil.

Eventually, just as I had planned, their bottom branches gently touched each other. I did not have to kill or mutilate any one of them to gain space for the others. Every day my spruces told me I had been right to stand up to Pat.

Now, however, some twenty-five years after that triumphant act of resistance, my spruces were under attack. The rhizosphaera needle cast fungus had infected them, and my beautiful trees were showing the effects. In the spring they would add new steely-blue growth, but by summer that growth would have turned brown and dropped off.

Despite my commitment to a pesticide-free garden, I made an exception to save the spruces and hired Joe from Daveys Tree Service to spray them. He used a product whose label screamed “Danger/Peligro.” He told me that CuPRO5000 was registered with the EPA and was deemed environmentally safe. My daughter is an environmental justice lawyer. I knew all too well the limitations of “EPA Approved.” But still, at issue were my spruces.

Joe insisted the treatment was working. He told me the trees looked good, particularly when compared to what he saw in other gardens. I said the trees look wretched and “other gardens” didn’t matter to me. My spruces were no longer full and fluffy. Instead, they were ragged and scraggly, full of dead branches and stunted growth.

“Joe,” I said, “Let’s face it, they are dying. They need to be removed.”

Removed? What was I saying? I had made a promise to these trees that if they were to die, I would leave Country Meadows. I had made them the symbol of my success as a gardener and forged a magic connection between their well-being and my self-image. They trumpeted to all who saw them that I was a person capable of making the right decisions about plants. And who would I be if I were not that person? Who would I be if I were not the envy of the neighborhood? I had read the stories about what happens when one’s occupation is gone. I knew all about the sixth-story window and the post-retirement jump. I couldn’t leave my garden. I did not want to be dead before I died. I wanted to go into that good night with dirt on my hands, green smudge on my face, and mud on my boots.

Challenging Joe’s positive assessment, I had to grapple with my promise and its premise– – as long as this line of trees stands, which it will for years and years because I have planted it for the seventh generation, I will not have to leave my garden. I will not get older. I will not die.

I am a reasonable person. I can recognize magical thinking when I encounter it. I am capable of recalculating. I don’t have to move just because my spruces are dying. I am not dying just because my spruces are.

Recently I have become committed to rebuilding native habitat in my back yard. If I were to take down the spruces, I could imagine planting a hedgerow of native plants along the back line of our property. Such a hedgerow would not only be attractive and useful in itself; it would be a model for neighbors and might even inspire imitation, allowing us to create a corridor of native hedgerow throughout the neighborhood. I am anxious to do this.

So, why don’t I take down the spruces and plant a native hedgerow?  What stops me from the obvious solution to my problem?

One night at Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I had a vision. It happened during the performance of the third movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, aptly dubbed the “great” symphony. I saw my spruces dancing. They took hold of each other’s hands, those lower now-touching branches, and swayed gracefully forward and back, forward and back, bowing down and lifting up, in time to the music, murmuring as they went, “Thank you.”

A foolish promise made in a moment of trauma is one thing. A vision, however, is quite another. Visions come from that liminal realm that exists between the conscious and unconscious mind. They bring information and perspectives not readily available to us. They are sacred, their messages are to be treasured. I don’t have visions. But I did. No wonder I couldn’t make the call. I couldn’t kill trees that have danced for me.

Then I remembered that I had experienced trees dancing for me before.

When I was married, before I found the courage and the context that would allow me to dance with girls, my husband and I bought a house in St. David’s, a suburb outside of Philadelphia. We fell in love with the house in part because of the two American elms that graced its front lawn. Coming home from work every day that first winter I lived in St. David’s, I had the thrill of seeing the bare branches of these elms moving in the wind, swaying, dancing, and I began to understand why the Druids worshipped trees. As naïve horticulturally as we were emotionally, Earl and I knew nothing of the Dutch elm disease that had rotted one tree to the core and weakened the other beyond saving. When spring came and the trees showed signs of distress, I cursed the former owners who had deluded us into thinking we had beautiful trees and had instead saddled us with the grief of taking them down.

Now I wondered: had I become like those owners I cursed? Was I, who prided herself on thinking forward to the seventh generation, simply leaving a mess for the second generation to clean up? Was I actually in the midst of a colossal irony, so invested in a planting that symbolized my skills as a good gardener that I had actually become a bad one?

I put the phone back in the charger and went out to take another look at my spruces. And then I saw what I had not noticed before. The spruce at one end of the line was severely compromised, not by the fungus but rather by the European hornbeam planted on its other side some twenty years ago by, of course, none other than Pat. The hornbeam, now pushing out of adolescence and on its way to maturity, was much too close to the neighboring spruce.

I had not paid enough attention when Pat proposed the addition and the siting of the hornbeam. I was simply flattered that he would think of me when he found a special tree for a good price in a faraway nursery. And of course I was hooked when he told me that no one in the neighborhood had one or was likely to get one. When I learned that, while vigorous, healthy, and beautiful in all seasons, the hornbeam was particularly attractive in winter when its brandy- snifter shape emerged clearly, I was ready to write the check. He did not tell me of its size at maturity or how that might compromise the spruces.

Looking at the compromised spruce, I realized that in the world of trees as in the world of animals, there are patterns of dominance and submission, and in this case the hornbeam was definitely dominant. I could practically feel its determination to squash the spruce whose tip was now firmly within hornbeam airspace.

As a garden designer, I always tell my clients: don’t become a gardener unless you are willing to kill. Now, with my designer’s eyes back in play and free of magical thinking, I realized I needed to follow my own admonition and kill this spruce before it was rendered useless by its healthier, more robust, and now more beautiful neighbor. Then, looking at the entire line of spruces, I could see that, in addition to the spruce next to the hornbeam, I could also remove the one at the other end of the line, more wracked and wrecked than the middle two.

A wave of relief flooded me. I was behaving like a good gardener should. I was prioritizing the dominant healthy tree rather than the sickly diseased tree. And I was making an additional assessment, acting responsibly for the next generation. I would not have to move, nor would I have to break the promise of a vision. Two would go but two would stay.

Back in the house I made the call.

Advantage Tree arrived the next week, and within an hour two spruces came down and two stumps came out.

Later in the day Kevin, my adopted son and garden helper, stopped by.

“Are they gone?” he asked, because indeed it was hard to know that the spruces had ever been there. The hornbeam had already spread out its previously cramped branches, filling the space where the one spruce had been, as full of itself as my female cat had been when her brother finally died and left her, stretching out each leg in turn, in cat-free space.

We moved to where the second spruce had been. And we stopped, amazed at what we now had before us.

“Let’s go up to the patio and see if it really is what we think,” I said to Kevin.

And indeed, there it was, a “borrowed view,” the summum bonum of the great eighteenth- century garden designers, right in my own backyard. Sitting on the patio, Kevin and I could see through the hole left by the removal of the spruce into Dahl’s garden. We now had a landscape filled with a view of the remaining two spruces, as well as a view of Dahl’s fishpond and the plantings around it; in the background we could even catch a glimpse of Dahl’s magnificent Japanese Katsura tree.

I do not subscribe to the theology of “the fortunate fall”—it is good that x happened because now we have y—but I am more than prepared to take advantage of the fortunate accident that provides unexpected delight in a place where only sorrow was anticipated. And if I must eventually remove the other two spruces, I have a plan in hand for what I will put in their place.

Besides, I will always have my vision of blue spruces dancing.

A Place Like This
Finding Myself in a Cape Cod Cottage
by Sally W. Buffington
 
A book for anyone who's ever loved a house.
When newly engaged Sally Buffington is introduced to Craigville, she meets an expansive Cape Cod cottage that is virtually a family member itself. She quickly finds herself competing for airtime among the talkative, assured band of brothers—and her new mother-in-law, the cottage’s lively and confounding matriarch. Sally, a Cape Cod local, soon wonders how she’ll ever maintain her independence, let alone her sense of self when the day’s agenda and every detail is already set in stone. But she navigates her new life with quiet persistence and a boundless curiosity that guides her to explore life through the creative lens of her camera and her pen. Sally writes with a whimsical candor that is both honest and humorous. Through poetic prose and heartfelt reflection, A Place Like This reveals the beauty of Cape Cod and shows us that sometimes the simplest of moments brings us the most lasting joy. Sally Buffington is a writer and photographer, also a classically trained musician. From her home in southern California, she migrates back to native ground in Massachusetts, especially her spiritual homeland of Cape Cod. Writing lyrically and imaginatively, ever aware of sensory experience and memory, Buffington takes the reader into her thoughts wherever she finds herself. Buffington can “see things other people don’t see” in everyday scenes and find them beautiful. But her prose is where that ability most shines through. This memoir paints a vivid and lasting memory of a home with as much personality as the family who lived there.
- Book Life
"Punctuated by sensory delights, the author’s prose can prove particularly mouthwatering" …. "An elegantly observant account that transports readers to a beloved place."
- Kirkus
To learn more, and order the book, go to Amazon, Bookshop.org, www.sallybuffington.com, or your local bookstore.

Bios

Judith Fetterley lives, writes, and gardens in upstate New York with her partner, Sara, and her cat, Tanner. She is passionate about plants and what they have to teach us about our place in the universe. A former Distinguished Teaching Professor of American Literature, Women’s Studies, and Writing Studies at the University at Albany/State University of New York, she is the author of The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction and Writing out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture. Since leaving her academic appointment, she has owned and managed a small garden design business, Perennial Wisdom, and become a Master Gardener for the Albany County Cornell Co-operative Extension. Recent work has appeared in Under The Sun, Rough Cut Press, North Dakota Quarterly, Hypertext, and the New York Times Modern Love column. She writes a bi-monthly newsletter, “Out in the Garden,” which starts and ends in the garden but travels widely in between. It can be read on Substack or on her website.
Sally Buffington is a writer and photographer, also a classically trained musician. From home in southern California, she migrates back to native ground in Massachusetts (Cape Cod), so is thus a bi-coastal citizen. Always aware of sensory experience and memory, Buffington takes you into her thoughts wherever she finds herself.  Follow her blog at www.sallybuffington.com

One Comment

  1. This essay resonates as I am currently reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Amy Kimmerer. Let nature talk. Let’s listen

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