Requiem for a Sycamore
(Song of the Earth — Part 2)
We are under attack.
First went the buffer trees to the west between our house and the farm behind, culled like a herd of buffalo in Yellowstone, one minute standing there minding their own business, the next, death by chainsaw, soon to be split for firewood or sold for planks to make someone’s house or coffee table in China. I can live with this — I told you how in a previous post — although that doesn’t change the tragedy. But now, the assault comes from the east, the area to the front of our house, down the long, steep driveway and around the bend to the bottom of the hill where the stump of a Sycamore lies upended, the clayey soil stuck to its roots like blood, all that’s left of 80 years of life on this planet.
The tree was planted by the grandfather of my neighbor who lives on the far end of the hill; the grandfather was the one who developed this ridge that consists of a grand total of five houses, each on an acre lot, give or take, each surrounded by trees, trees, trees: heaven on a hill. Generally the word developed has horrible connotations — impervious surfaces that mean stormwater management issues, the end of the natural world, and the beginning of the macadam-covered one — but on our ridge it means ideal leaving where nature and man exist side-by-side, the kind of place that’s damn hard to find, and maybe only a dream as it seems to be slipping from us faster than one. I find myself humming a lot as a way to balance my body and the earth outside my window, but that’s not going to bring back the trees.
Trees store carbon in their trunks, branches, leaves, and underground in their roots. Old growth trees, because of their girth can individually store more carbon than young trees, but a young forest that is growing quickly will use and store more carbon than an old growth forest — just as a young athlete is often faster or more agile than an older one — because they are growing, i.e., photosynthesizing more rapidly, pulling in carbon and releasing oxygen.
The house to the east is taking up the space where the old Sycamore stood, hoarding carbon and spilling oxygen out into the environment, nothing but helpful, as opposed to the copycat house that looks just like a whole development of houses a mile down the road on what used to be a farm, crammed together so tightly that you can’t throw a snowball without hitting a window, like being at the Jersey shore but without the draw of the ocean. As a kid, my family would drive from Jersey to Lancaster drawn by the bucolic rolling hills of Central, PA. There’s really no draw here anymore, the developers have seen to that. The farms are gone because the houses are sitting on top of them and the trees that are left have been clear-cut to make it easier to put the ugly houses in. Progress! Development! Forward, ho! Give the people what they want.
The problem is people don’t know what they want. Home buyers are not generally architects and designers. The American Home Builders Association scores big every time they repeat a design for a house because they don’t need to hire another architect, making way for a booming housing market where the quality of homes declines, and we’re left with six designs of separation, masterful disguises, a first-rate trompe l’oeil — a visual artistic technique that fools the eye — like stone facades made to look like stone houses when it’s really just a few rocks glued onto plywood.
The house below us was most certainly chosen from a book of model homes with a few add-ons to make it special and distinguish it from all the other homes that look exactly the same. I can just imagine the sales pitch now — choose from hundreds of customized amenities — but really the differences are to keep complete strangers from walking in your door at 2 a.m. after a night of partying, raiding the fridge and putting their feet on your coffee table while they watch Netflix because they think they’re home.
“Damn, honey, we should have put the lattice-work on the arbor and planted wisteria so the Joneses could distinguish our back walk from theirs with the arbor and the climbing roses.”
When my husband and I were looking for a home, we would have lived in a tent before we bought a house in a development where no two homes were identical yet every block was the same as every other block, all with exceptional homes starting in the [fill in kajillion dollar amount of the decade], with the very best in custom building (my last house had 13” brick walls — that was custom building!), where the trees have been removed and two little saplings have been planted that will take your entire time living there to become real trees; a place where you press the electric door opener, park your car in the garage, and never say hey, hi, or hello to your neighbor; for us a depressing place. Then we found this house, nested in the woods, only a few neighbors, every house an original, ours a Japanese contemporary that reminds us of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water with it’s cantilevered design and the way it blends seamlessly with nature, built by an architect with a vision as opposed to a builder with a bottom line — high art in housing, not cookie-cutter conveniences. Does it need work? Of course. It was built in 1959 and nothing lasts forever.
The house on the lot below straddles the back yard of three or four houses and the kitchen looks right into a few of those neighbors bedrooms; the builder didn’t have a vision, just a desire to make money. Okay, props for not cutting the trees on the hill down (because then our driveway might wash away with the sediment), but the house sits right where the water used to pond in times of heavy rain, bringing with it the ducks and their ducklings, in the space where the Sycamore used to live. Where will that water go now? Under PA law, they needed to create a stormwater management system so they dug a great big hole, maybe 10’ x 20’, encased it in geotextile fabric, back-filled it with stone and covered it with soil. Will it work? My husband thinks not since it was built on the highest point on the lot. Guess the neighbors better get their sump pumps ready.
Plus, the house looks crooked. My husband says it’s an optical illusion and that it only looks that way because of the hill beside it and the way the trees are growing a bit sideways toward it, reaching for their shot at the light. Fine, okay, whatever, but if you just laid out a few hundred K for a house, would you want it to look like a ship on water, listing to the left?
When did repetition replace ingenuity. Wasn’t American ingenuity a pseudonym for America at one time? Well scrap that. Here in Central PA, we’re throwing up more big box stores than we have farm land to fill them. Do we really need that many Targets? Dick’s Sporting Goods? Chick-fil-As? Do we really want to buy the same things and eat the same meals over and over again, week after week, decade after decade? What happened to our sense of adventure? Of trying something new? When did the entire country adopt the mindset of an octogenarian? When will we say enough to the consumerism that will be the destruction of the natural world that feeds us, nurtures us, and gives us beauty and comfort. And what about the Sycamore?