By Joseph Gross
Three boys sit on their dirt bikes and watch my dad and me cross the busy street.They each lean with a foot on the ground and a foot on a pedal, positioned on the grass between the woods and the street where they can watch traffic and where traffic can view them. They’re expressionless, bored, half my age at the most. One wears a hooded sweatshirt under flannel, the hood up, and smokes a cigarette. I wonder if they’re looking at my dad’s rectangular cardboard case that he made to conceal the saws. I think about moving to my dad’s left, between him and the boys, from a sense that they might try something, that they might say something rude, even to an old man. Maybe flick the cigarette at us. When we’ve crossed, before we head into the trees, my dad gives them a nod and all three of them nod back.
We push through some chest-high scrub and I ask him if he knows those boys. He laughs. He lifts the case. “They think I’m a painter,” he says. He tells me that they see him enter the preserve here often and one day they finally stopped him and said that they’d been wondering what he did in the woods. One thought he was a scientist. Another thought the cardboard case functioned as an easel and holder of paints and brushes. I’m not surprised that they sized up his trim white beard and wild eyebrows, despite the rugged clothes he wore, and assigned him these dignified jobs. They could spot an academic.
But we’re not here to paint. We’re here to murder an elm tree.
I look back to see if the boys are following, but all I can see is brush and above that the power lines that hem in this urban forest preserve. The sky is covered with thin, pearly-bright clouds. I go back to following my dad’s tan Carhart coat, his brown canvas overalls, and boots. The bigger trees, still without leaves, stand in front of us. They spread out against the clouds like black coral.
I ask my dad if he thinks the boys are the ones who ratted him out to the local board that has control of city parks. “I doubt it,” he says, “I don’t think those guys are exactly arm in arm with the authorities.”
The board sent him a letter saying that they understood he was making “alterations” to the preserve that were illegal; they suggested that he, of course, just hadn’t been aware of the legal issues. When he didn’t stop they sent another. And another.
He tried writing a letter on his best university stationary to explain his approach and tried the time-honored placement of a bottle of whiskey in the mailbox of the head of the board, but the board refused to budge. Now, he just parks his Volkswagen camper a few blocks from the preserve and hides the saws in his case. “Those people don’t know shit about trees,” he says.
We’re looking for an elm my dad has had his eye on, toward the middle of the woods where it’ll be hard for anyone to spot us.
We pick our way through saplings and briars, dead brown stalks from last year, the smell of moldy leaves and dirt. Most of the big trees are oaks. I tell my dad that on my drive over I heard someone, a psychologist I think, say on NPR that the “depressed individual obsesses with minutiae.” I tell him how I’ve been following the Detroit Tiger’s spring training games, the battle for the fifth spot in the starting rotation, the new backup catcher’s strained groin (the result of off-season hernia surgery), the two-strike approach of our slick fielding third baseman who has a history of striking out too much for a career .238 hitter. “I turned the dial to the other NPR station,” I say. “The one with less talking and more music.”
My dad says that he only listens to the talk station because the music doesn’t distract him enough. He says he doesn’t need either one as long as he’s out in the woods for a while every day. His voice sounds thin, like he has a cold, and I wonder if he’s slid a little when I wasn’t watching. I tell myself that I’ve anticipated his sudden demise for many years. I notice as we walk that his breathing sounds thick.
“This is the one,” he says. The elm looks pretty much the same to me as the oaks and I ask my dad how he can tell. He says that it’s the way the branches of an elm spread out and down like a canopy, like fireworks rising, bursting and falling away from a central point.
The teeth of the bow saw push dark brown dust from the bark, then blond as they bite into the elm’s trunk. My dad jams one knee into the damp mossy ground and works the saw back and forth in violent stabs. I can smell the fresh wood. The elm’s bark runs in deep vertical notches that lace together as I follow their path up and up until the pattern disappears, until the trunk splits into limbs that curve away. It’s a large elm—at least fifty feet high—and if I were able to shimmy the wide trunk and climb near the top I’d see the city all around us, surrounding this square of forest, even though I can barely hear the sounds of traffic from where we are. The preserve itself only holds back the push of buildings because the elderly woman who owned the acreage willed it to the city with the stipulation that it be allowed to go completely back to nature.
My dad takes off his knit cap and his head steams. His scalp is covered with a kind of red fungus that he’s been struggling with lately. I can see that he’s put some ointment or cream on it. I ask him if he’s ready for me to take over, if he’s tired. He leaves the bow saw in the tree and rests his fists on his thighs, breathing hard. His breath still sounds thick. He’s already cut through a good amount of the trunk and I know when it’s my turn I won’t get as far before my arms get tired; I know he’s still stronger than me in some ways. And I know he does this often. He says, “In a minute,” and goes back to sawing.
This preserve is just the most recent piece of woods that he’s found to take down box elders and elms, trees that aren’t native to the area, trees especially that are susceptible to Elm Blight. Elms that might have lived for two or three hundred years don’t live much past ten—they’re hardy trees and they grow fast, but the tiny elm bark beetle finds them all, initiates a process in which the trees, in an effort to protect themselves against the spread of the disease, dam up their own tissue with a kind of gum. The tissue no longer sends vital nutrients up through the tree. The tissue plugs and dies.
I tell my dad that Dontrelle Willis, the left-handed starting pitcher to whom the Detroit Tigers recently gave a three-year, 24 million dollar contract, had walked four batters in his last outing in Florida and I don’t think Jim Leyland can take him north when they broke camp. Dontrelle might be done.
My dad keeps ripping the saw back and forth. After a minute he stops and asks, “Is Dontrelle Willis that black kid with the high, Juan Marichal leg kick?”
I say he is, even if the kick is more Luis Tiant than Juan Marichal, and my dad says, “I like that kid.”
He gives me the saw and the metal feels cold and solid in my hand and when I skin my knuckles on the bark I realize I should’ve brought gloves. I get tired after just a couple minutes.
I can see that my dad picked the right side of the tree to start on because it leans just a little away from the cut and keeps the blade from pinching. He started learning about trees—how to know them even in winter, how to cut them properly—when he was a kid, an inheritance from his own dad. My grandfather, who we called “Pop,” was a country kid who was at home in the woods. He became joint owner of a railroad tie company with another man who was connected to banking. Pop was the link to the country people who made the ties by hand. He called them “tie hackers.”
Because he knew about trees, Pop made a lot of money selling railroad ties to the government during World War II. The government wanted treated, red oak ties, because red oak has open pores that accept the tar and last. Pop knew that there was another, much more plentiful and cheaper tree in Missouri that he could sell the government, and that this other tree would hold up just as well. Pop was a veteran of the First World War and made it clear that he did not put the army in danger, even if he made a lot of money off the sale of those ties, even if he reveled in a deception rooted in country sense. For some reason, he never told my dad what kind of tree he actually used.
Fibers have started to rip here and there as the trunk shifts its weight. I pull the blade out to show my dad and so I can rest. “Good,” he says and takes the saw. I had intended to keep going but I get up and let him go back to work. He tells me that after we get the tree down he’s hoping to cut it into discs and spread them around. “Hide the body,” he says. The park board has ignited his joy of rebellion. When my mother asked him why he keeps going to this public lot instead of doing the same things in some woods he bought outside of town, he said, “Because I’m not getting away with anything out there.”
Between the trees I think I see something red move—a plaid shirt? I stare at the spot where I thought I saw it but can’t pick up any more movement. “I thought I saw someone,” I say to my dad. He looks up and shrugs and works the saw. One of our few differences is that I fear getting caught.
“How’s school?” he asks. I take the saw back and work it into the deep notch until it grabs solid wood. I tell him it’s going fine, but that I feel so old to be in grad school and that the process can seem unrelated to real life, so pointless that I lose traction. I worry about what will happen after I graduate. He reminds me that as a scholastic he had such bad migraines and anxiety that he didn’t write a paper for two years, that the Jesuits he studied under gave him automatic C’s and let him shoot baskets on an outdoor court during study hours. Under some flimsy pretense they let him wander in the nearby woods, where he practiced identifying the different trees. He says he thinks the Jesuits knew he had some potential but that he never really knew why. He says I come from a long line of dreamers and rascals and priests, some of whom were never able to cope with their temperaments, but that most of them lived long and interesting lives. Or at least interesting.
And I’ve heard their stories—his sister who killer herself in Paris, his father who sealed his first big business deal by actually eating his own straw hat, the Great-Aunt from Virginia who refused to ever carry a five-dollar bill because it bore the image of Abraham Lincoln, two Trappist monks, a bishop, a horse thief, a few more suicides and a lot of heavy drinkers. Someone once commissioned a family tree that supposedly traces my grandmother’s family straight back to Sir Francis Drake, the famous pirate. This instantly became a matter of family pride.
My arms burn even faster this time, trying to keep the saw level and low to the ground. As the cut deepens the saw has less room to move and I bang my knuckles on the bark a few times. I let my dad take over and again I’m surprised at how much more efficient and powerful his short strokes are. The tree groans and cracks. The wood above the cut has started to split on its own. My dad pulls the saw out, coughs and spits. “I’ve had this damn cold for almost two weeks,” he says. He stands up and pats the trunk. He says it’s going to go over pretty quick.
We look at where the elm is going to land and my dad goes over and kicks a pile of leaves in what looks like the fall-line, uncovering a pine seedling. “Shit,” he says and I know that’s probably a white pine he planted—he plants two or three native hardwoods for every tree he cuts down—sugar maple and beech in swampy woods, oaks where drainage is good, white pine anywhere. “We’ll put it in the hands of fate,” he says and comes back to the elm, where we stand together for a little.
A cardinal somewhere close by gives a steady whistle. The low hum of traffic a few hundred yards off. No footsteps. I find myself going through the Tiger’s five-man starting rotation: Verlander, Jackson, Galarraga, but then questions. Dontrelle can’t be counted on; our other lefty possibility, Nate Robertson, seems to have lost his slider, Bonderman is still recovering from off-season surgery. There’s the rookie, Rick Porcello, who has so much potential, but you don’t want to rush the twenty-year old, just a handful of single-A starts behind him.
My dad runs his fingers over the elm’s bark. He looks up at the higher branches. He says that the other day he read a report that an ape in the Washington D.C. zoo had learned to whistle and for some reason that made him think of me, that he thought I might appreciate that.
“I read that report online,” I said. “I think it was an orangutan, and it made me think of you.” We both start to laugh. I tell him that I imagined a cartoon monkey in a tiny barred cage with a bowler hat on, whistling show tunes.
My dad says, “You mean like he might occasionally remove his watch and chain?” He leans against the elm, arches one bushy eyebrow and pretends to pull a watch from the chest pocket of his overalls. We laugh harder, he coughs a little and both of us start tearing up. He says, still laughing, “Let’s tear this fucker down,” and gets down on a knee again and starts pulling the saw in single draws toward him. I push on the trunk, although it seems doubtful that I’ll have much effect.
After a dozen pulls or so the trunk starts to crack much faster than it has been, then the whole tree mobilizes and there’s a tremendous whoosh like rushing water; my vision goes wild and spotty in the couple of seconds before the crash. It is suddenly lighter where we stand beneath a hole in the canopy.
My dad stands up, his face flushed, his mouth open. As a kind of a carryover from the whistling orangutan and from the nervous energy of the moment I can’t help but start laughing again. So does my dad. I hear a voice yell something I can’t make out but it sounds closer than the road. My dad and I laugh and grab the saw and the case and start trotting toward the other side of the preserve. I hear another shout behind us and my dad’s hoarse laugh, then only the sound of our boots tramping down the dead leaves. I get behind my dad. He knows where we’re going.