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Climate Change, Writ Small

I sat on my back porch one bright day in the fall of 2019 reveling in the thousands of golden leaves billowing down around and on to me from my neighbor’s century old ash. The tree spread over my yard and three more. It had a habit of dropping most of its leaves each year over just a few hours on a single perfect October day, an event I looked forward to and tried not to miss. The spent leaves would lay over my Brooklyn garden all winter, providing a protective blanket for the

perennials I grow and, as the leaves decomposed into humus over the years, nourishing the plants too. Thanks to the tree, I had never needed to mulch or fertilize the garden.

A few days later, with no warning, a dozen men swarmed my neighbor’s yard – and mine! – to truss up the tree and take it down. I could not believe this was happening. Neither could I stop it. After an incredulous outburst and subsequent conversation with my neighbor, for which I later felt compelled to apologize, I spent the day sobbing, unable to work.

My teenage son asked whether I could not plant another tree. Yes, I told him, but the giant ash, which judging from its girth and the stump left behind was at least a century in the making, was irreplaceable.

The tree was so massive that taking it down was an entire day’s project. A gigantic wood chipper wailed out in the street well into the evening, shredding the magnificent being to bits. I wanted to scream along with it.

Mourning the ash all winter, I read about trees native to my area, as I considered which type I might plant. After much reading and a long correspondence with a tree nursery, in April my family planted the specimen I had chosen, a five-foot tall hybrid American chestnut, in a joyful but insufficient attempt to heal my spirit. It was the second month of pandemic lockdown in New York City.

My neighbors mourned the ash too. Sunset Park is one of those neighborhoods of connected row houses where everyone can see everyone else’s yard. The ash had been just one of two grand old trees left on the block that towered over the apartment buildings at the end of our back lots. Now there was just one.

“It wasn’t just a tree,” I kept telling my husband and anyone else who would listen. “They destroyed an entire ecosystem.” It’s true. The ash had been home to birds and insects I would never know the names of. It had hosted two different native ivies that grew around its lower trunk, sheltering bees and other pollinators. It had offered an easy escape for the raccoons I would often surprise in our yard.

When we bought our house two decades ago, the yard had been the reason. It was a dump-heap but it was huge. A chain link fence divided fourteen feet of broken concrete slab from a 30-foot long plot of land covered with garbage and the detritus of generations, crawling with poison ivy. The summer we moved in my husband drove out to Coney Island to rent a jackhammer, which he used to get the chain link fence out of the concrete, and I went to work cleaning up the lot. That fall I planted every shade-loving perennial I could find. The following spring, and each one after, we were  rewarded with a woodland garden that grew more beautiful each year as the plants matured, new ones were added, and select volunteers were permitted to take root.

I spent the long winter worrying, knowing that with the ash gone the perennials would be blasted with sun. I had planted a woodland garden and now the woodland canopy was gone. Some plants, I feared, would not be able to adjust. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the shocking increase in the garden’s need for water. During the two decades I had gardened here, I had never needed to water before July, and then only infrequently, when it hasn’t rained for a week or two. With the loss of the giant ash, despite a record-cold May, despite a number of weeks when it never seemed to stop raining, the garden needed watering constantly, whenever more than two days passed without rain. The same was true in 2021, beginning in the spring and continuing even today as I updated this column in October.

The extreme change in the need to water makes sense, I realize, for the same reason that my neighbor who had the ash cut down purchased two nine-foot patio umbrellas. My husband and I soon realized we would need to do the same if we wanted to be able to sit in our yard or on our back porch during the day. The sun is relentless. In that first May after the ash was cut down I was sunburned and peeling before I realized I would need to wear sunscreen every day from now on.

In a home that prizes conservation, where we never run water to wash our hands, brush our teeth, or scrub our pots and pans, the flood of water I now must use to keep my garden healthy causes much pain. Luckily, we can afford the increased cost in water bills, but what happens when we have our next drought, which is likely to occur with increasing frequency?

I fight my despair with insufficient tools. Now there are three young trees in my yard. The chestnut, a northern red oak that volunteered several years ago and that is still barely four feet high, and a fast growing volunteer black cherry about thirty feet tall. I feed the birds and leave them water. I fantasize about a codicil in my will that would prevent future inhabitants of my house from cutting down trees, something that is probably not enforceable, I know.

One thing is certain. The extreme outcomes of removing just one venerable tree makes the effects of killing billions each year – a human-caused disaster that is currently accelerating – viscerally obvious and terrifying. If cutting down a single mature tree can cause such dramatic harmful changes to my single tiny plot of the Earth, how can we humans expect to survive the radical deforestation of our planet?


The answer is simple. We can’t.

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