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Every leaf a miracle

Know a tree or poetry and life can be renewed



Image credit: Richard Mia

There are 4 million trees in the Windy City. This is the story of one that got away.

Several summers ago I returned home from work and found the landscape irrevocably altered. When I’d left that morning, a broadly branching chestnut tree had stood in the backyard of the house two doors over from ours. Now it was gone. The only ones more surprised than I were the birds, who punctured the evening quiet with their profane tweets.

The birds had lost their homes; we had lost a living landmark. Since my wife and I had moved into our house, and as our children were born and grew up, the tree had stood there. From the upstairs deck off our bedroom, we could see other trees, many of them grand, but none so majestic as the chestnut, whose lush, leafy canopy might comfortably shade a bevy of brawny blacksmiths.

I never got the full story of the tree’s origins, which I regret. The couple who owned the house with the chestnut tree were in their 70s when we moved into the neighborhood. Ellen, born in 1924, had lived in the house most of her life. The tree had likely been there just as long, grown from a chestnut that her father had brought from France. After the couple died — George in 2004, Ellen three years later — the house was sold to a developer. The very first thing he did was cut down the chestnut tree. A few days later he demolished the house.

A McMansion complete with gargantuan garage took its place. Little was left in the way of a yard. Over the past decade, this has become a familiar pattern in our neighborhood. When the old homes are sold, they are replaced by structures that invariably share two distinguishing features: a deck atop the garage in lieu of a backyard, and a colonnade at the home’s entryway. The latter are often composed of Doric columns, more appropriate to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. I had always heard the South would rise again; I just did not think it would be next door.

I don’t know why I have such an aversion to those columns. In the 1830s, first as a town and then as a city, Chicago was an avid participant in architecture’s Greek Revival. But the columns of the structures built then actually supported weighty pediments. The newly installed pillars in my neighborhood, more decorative than structural, are an affront here in the land of “form follows function.” And the worker who shoulders one of those featherweight tubes and struts about as if he were Samson? What a doric.

There are worse things than losing a solitary chestnut tree. In 1995, we weren’t the only newcomers to the neighborhood. Others took up residence after a journey of 7,000 miles, hitching a ride from China on the wooden crates and pallets used in a delivery to a hardware manufacturing company six blocks from our house. These Asian longhorned beetles, shiny black insects with white spots and long antennae, laid their eggs in nearby trees. The beetle larvae burrowed into the host trees, munching their way to maturity, at which point the adults chewed their way back out — not especially benign behavior from the trees’ perspective.

Like everything else, people’s tastes change, be it in architecture, in arboriculture, or in poets.

It was a few years before the beetles were detected; by that time, they had spread across several city blocks. In 1999, the city of Chicago and private contractors cut down and destroyed 876 infested trees, the only way to effectively contain the invasive pests. “It will be years — decades, even — before these streets know shade again,” observed the Chicago Tribune.

The first to go was a Norway maple that had been planted in 1966 to replace a tree lost to Dutch elm disease. Another homeowner bemoaned the loss of her 100-year-old ash tree; she had learned it would be coming down on the same day she brought home her newborn son. The city replanted a variety of species along those desecrated blocks, but six years later, that homeowner remained unhappy. “We had the biggest and most beautiful tree on the block and ended up with the saddest,” she told the Tribune, referencing the sapling that had taken the ash’s place.

Fortunately, our street was spared. Out front, we still have the towering tulip tree that was already ancient the day we moved in. A city worker trimming the trees along our block once tried to convince me it was a linden — “You know, like Barney Miller,” he said, rooting about in his trove of arboreal arcana to unearth this reference to the 1970s sitcom starring Hal Linden — but the dazzling sunbursts of color that appear each June when the tree flowers provide incontrovertible evidence of its Linnaean provenance.

I find many reasons to admire that tree, especially as I watch the Doric columns proliferate in our neighborhood. Most people are familiar with Monticello and its colonnaded porches. (If your memory needs jogging, check out the back of a nickel.) As he began compulsively remodeling in 1792, Jefferson envisioned six Doric columns holding up the west portico of his hilltop home. But for years, those pillars failed to materialize; instead, the trunks of four tulip trees served as substitutes. When the British diplomat Augustus John Foster visited Monticello in 1807, he declared the tree trunks “as beautiful as the fluted shafts of Corinthian pillars.”

The Doric columns were finally installed in 1822, four years before Jefferson’s death; one of his slaves, a skilled stonemason named Thrimston Hern, helped make Jefferson’s dream a reality. But the tulip trees were an integral part of Monticello’s design for at least 15 years — and Jack McLaughlin, the author of Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, thinks they were there even longer. We’ve been in our home 25 years, and I expect our tulip tree, at least as old as our 120-year-old house, will remain long after I’m gone. Those faux Dorics next door and across the street should be so lucky.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” — which begins “Under a spreading chestnut-tree” — was once among the best-loved poems of the American people. Like everything else, people’s tastes change, be it in architecture, in arboriculture, or in poets (else I need not have felt compelled to explain my earlier allusion to tree-shaded smithies). A philosopher grounded in equanimity might even find consolation in these recurring cycles of change.

In March 1842, emerging from a deep depression brought on by the death of his brother, Henry David Thoreau composed a letter to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature, he wrote, does not recognize death. “She finds her own again under new forms without loss. … When we look over the fields we are not saddened because these particular flowers or grasses will wither — for the law of their death is the law of new life.” Even in the midst of profound loss, nature regenerative triumphs.

Years have passed, decades even, and now those beetle-devastated streets know shade again. The mother and her young son have moved on, but an oak of great promise now rises where her beloved ash once stood. As for our vanished chestnut, it will never return; even if it could, there’s no longer a large swath of grass in which to plant itself.

But late last spring, as dusk overtook a May day, I sat in our backyard reading Whitman, whose sublime lament for the death of Lincoln was inspired by the sight of a newly blossomed lilac bush, its “every leaf a miracle.” I set the book aside and listened. In the tiny patch of yard where the majestic chestnut once stood, a father played with his two young children. I could not see them, but I could hear their laughter as it rose through the evening quiet, a comforting sound that might provide solace to even a battalion of blacksmiths.

• This story originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.