THE ASPLUNDH MAN: ON THE ART OF TREE PRUNING

 

At first, I didn’t see the Asplundh Man. I heard him. A rumble of massive wheels, rubber crushing gravel, brakes grinding to a halt. A secret button on the dash inside the cab sent a white and orange cherry picker into a perpendicular arch. On top of the cherry picker the Asplundh Man rose gracefully into the heavens, to the peak of an ancient oak tree. Brown leaves left over from the winter danced gaily on the branches and from the depths of the cherry picker the Asplundh Man drew out his weapon. Sunlight reflected off finely honed steel. Deftly, the Asplundh Man chose his limb and steel met wood. Another victim for the Asplundh Man, the village pruner! The branch fell and I trembled as it lay by the side of Route 8.

A year passed before I gathered the courage to confront the Asplundh Man about a birch tree on my property. One side of the tree had died but I was in denial. Finally, on a spring morning, when the birds were awakening from a winter sleep, I approached the Asplundh Man. The time had come to prune my beloved tree. Sadly, there comes to all of us in life that inevitable moment when we are forced to face reality.

I asked the Asplundh Man if he would be interested in some work. A menacing smile spread over his face and with the passion of one addicted to pruning trees he replied: “I’ll be there!”

Unfortunately, he was good to his word. Soon my birch had been partially decapitated. It was over. The Big Cut! I arrived home just in time to watch the Asplundh man wipe the last drops of sap off of his saw.

A new day dawned. The sun, no longer shaded by the birch, shot arrows of light into my room. Breakfast was consumed in silence. Morning had become mourning. My son, the doctor, carefully examined the incision and prescribed black paint to speed the healing. My son, the investment banker, read the Wall Street Journal and hypothesized that the wood could furnish sufficient pulp and would bring a good price on the open market.

My neighbor Cliff stopped by. (He was the neighbor who had advised the Big Cut.) “See you did it. Makes a lot of sense.” Cliff looks at life philosophically. He always has. Life is an unending cycle of loss and regeneration. He doesn’t communicate his philosophy in so many words, but that’s what he means when he says, “Makes sense. Makes a lot of sense.”

But not for the downy woodpecker who searched in vain for his favorite branch where he found bugs for breakfast. And the tufted titmouse? Two weeks into the construction of its breeding nest in the middle crotch of the tree the Asplundh Man had foreclosed on the titmouse’s home without due notice. My neighbor’s dog, who always raised his leg on the right side of the tree, was totally disoriented. His normal spot had vanished. I was unable to look at the tree and stared in an opposite direction. Cliff may have been correct when he said that it made sense but those were only words and what good is philosophy in the eternal struggle for survival? And anyway, it was not his tree!

So the seasons changed. Spring slid into summer. And I changed. Not in a single moment. Not consciously. But eventually I passed the birch with head held high. The scar had weathered into a natural gray and the tufted titmouse had returned for another rendezvous with destiny, building a fine nest in an upper story.

Yes, the seasons changed and eventually I adapted to the partially severed tree and realized that I cannot constantly dwell on loss. I relinquished my obsession with what wasn’t there, and grew to appreciate even more what I still had; namely, half of a glorious birch. And, after some years, I noticed new sprouts where the tree had been cut—a promise for the future.

We might not replace that which is lost, but scars heal—on trees. On people. Eventually, we branch out into new directions.

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