The aggressive cacophony of chainsaws cuts through the passive humidity of this oppressive summer day. I run out into my huge backyard here in a leafy, old neighborhood where the treetops of the giant live oaks meet and interlace above the shady streets. I stare in disbelief. The wall of green jungle at the end of my yard is gone. In the stark, fluorescent daylight, I can clearly see every inch of what I almost couldn’t before: a garage apartment, not particularly ugly, but a totally unacceptable substitute for what is no longer there—the illusion of the woods, a lush, verdant, enchanted coolness that flowered from time to time and protected us from the merciless sun that reserves the worst of its wrath for South Carolina.
I speak Spanish with the two men wielding the chainsaws. One is hanging onto the last remaining, and now limbless, tree trunk on the neighbor’s side of the fence. They smile and laugh and tell me that I should be happy, that the sun can now make my grass grow greener and thicker. I shield my eyes with my hand from the blinding sun and tell them that I know they had no choice in the matter, but that they robbed the shade from my back yard. Encouraged by their laughter, I boldly state that the person who hired them to wreak such devastation must be a “desalmado,” one who has no soul. They think it’s funny that a Gringa even knows such a word. We share a laugh and some good natured bantering for two minutes. I thank them for putting up with me. I wish them good luck and a good day, remind them to be careful not to fall, and not to tell their lousy boss that I called him a “desalmado,” which I know they won’t since I doubt they know any English.
I’m somewhat ashamed of myself. Really, the guy has a right to do what he wants on his own property. Who I am to tell anyone they have to maintain a jungle in their yard for MY benefit? If I don’t want to look at his house, it’s my problem, not his. I’m sure he’s a decent, nice guy. I’m sorry I called him a “desalmado.”
I skulk back to my little bungalow. I sit here writing, listening to the deafening drone of some other kind of equipment that is chopping something else down somewhere nearby, over which I also have no control. Although it’s a little too loud to qualify as white noise, it ushers me back to the first time I realized how vulnerable nature is to the whims of those with the desire and the means to commit “progress.”
My beautiful little 1950’s Topping Street in New Dorp Beach, Staten Island, was also a shady haven where giant Sycamores huddled over our narrow, pot-holed but charming road. I had a good friend named Nancy, who lived in a bigger, nicer house just three doors up from our little bungalow. We were both 5 years old and our mothers were good friends. I was sad when I found out that her family was moving out to Jersey to a “brand new house in the woods.” They came back one day and took me with them to spend the weekend with Nancy. I was overjoyed. They even had a car! Imagine that! We got there at night, and thanks to the moonlight, I could see the woods, which they said Nancy and I could play in the next day. I was so excited! I even had my own room! I woke up at sunrise, listening to the early morning birdsong, entranced by the first rosy/golden rays of timid sunshine sneaking into the room. The magic ended with a rude, metallic jolt that unleashed a non-stop torrent of cranking, revving and whining of several engines. I ran to the window and through the thin line of trees at the side edge of Nancy’s yard, I could see huge steam shovels and bulldozers driving back and forth, knocking down groaning trees and crunchy bushes and picking up dirt and rocks and tree trunks and limbs. The light in the room went from rosy to stark, and I understood the need for words I didn’t yet know, words like “intrusion,” “destruction,” “carnage,” “violation,” “unholy,” and “injustice.” I was too little to express what I was feeling, but I remember that sensation in the pit of my stomach to this very day. I felt that I was witnessing a tragic loss and that I was powerless to stop it. I remember nothing else about that weekend, but after it was over, I never heard from Nancy or her family ever again.
Now that I’ve become somewhat accustomed to the disappearance of my green wall, I’m a little surprised that I don’t feel worse than I do. My thoughts fluctuate between planting some fast growing bushes to replace the lost jungle and selling my house next week and moving somewhere else, somewhere where chainsaws don’t exist, where pretty weeds and vines are preferable to bare, eroding dirt, where shade is recognized as an asset.
But for now, I’m just going to avoid the back yard until I can figure out a viable game plan.
Meanwhile, I have to admit that the rest of the neighborhood still looks pretty good. I think it’s time for a walk.
Photo Credit: Gloria Talcove-Woodward, Sculpture on the Campus of University of California at Davis