More than anything, I wish there was such a thing as The Tree Police because I would be their Captain. An elite squadron of tree-saving ninjas, we would fight to stop the builders that are taking down dozens and dozens of trees every day in this town. I’d be stylin’ in my Tree Police uniform with my hat, my badge, khaki Bermuda shorts and a smokin’-hot short-sleeved, button-down khaki shirt that would show off my farmer’s tan. I’d look just like the human equivalent of Smokey the Bear or a Boy Scout who’s going through menopause.
The Tree Policewoman in me roared into view last summer when I ran into a neighbor I hardly knew whose husband had recently died. She began to confide in me about her dreams of moving to the beach and her desire to sell the stately Victorian house she’d lived in for decades. Panic gripped me like an overzealous third cousin at a family reunion! The lot boasted nine mature trees that would surely be lost, and if she sold to a developer, like so many neighbors before her, they’d bulldoze her single house and put two in its place! And then, to add insult to injury, they’d give the lot a Brazilian, leaving nary a blade of grass in sight. But most of all, I was worried about the two, majestic Maples which bookended the property. Would they be eradicated too?
I loved those trees, and the thought of them being taken down horrified me. Just a glimpse of their tall, leafy expanse could make my day! They looked like they were reaching for the sky, fingers outstretched, happy to be hanging in the sun or the wind or the rain. Just happy to be. I could see those trees from my yard and if they were taken down I’d never be able to walk or drive that way again without mourning their loss.
So, before I could stop myself I began offering unsolicited advice to this woman, who was practically a stranger, about what she should do with her house. “Wouldn’t it be great to find a nice, millennial couple who’s all about fixer-uppers and urban reforestation?” I pressed, like a salesman at a time-share breakfast. “I could help you find a buyer. I’d hate for a developer to get their hands on your house! They’d probably take down those trees.” I pointed to said trees mournfully. She looked at the trees and back at me and shrugged. I took this as a non-verbal “Yes! I’d love your help!”
The next few weeks I networked my ass off, getting in touch with every realtor and handyman I knew, trying to find a buyer for this architectural treasure. But after a routine inspection we found that the old girl had more problems than a Rabbi at a hog calling contest. And, naturally, my neighbor had no choice but to sell to a developer.
But the fact that someone from Wreck Your Homes and Garden had gotten their hands on This Old House sent me into a state of apoplexy. Night after night I tossed and turned, unable to sleep, the IMAX screen in my brain playing a relentless loop of those innocent, Maples, being cut down in their prime; chainsaws ripping, limbs falling. It was like watching a tree snuff film.
I called other tree huggers to unleash my outrage but was met with pragmatism. “Nashville has no laws to protect mature trees,” they reminded me. “But they’ll have to replace them with 2” caliper saplings!” they enthused.
“That would be like putting a drink umbrella on your deck and hoping for shade,” I pointed out.
I continued to obsess about the trees, and on walks with my dog I’d stop and talk to them. You know, the way a women with 31 cats would do? But I sensed they could understand me; that they knew I was trying to save them from becoming a Vera Desk or a No. 2 pencil. And then, one morning, mid conversation, I had an epiphany! The tree at the back of the lot stood just a couple of feet from the alley, which was city property. And if this tree was even partly rooted on city property it would be considered a boundary tree, and couldn’t be taken down!
Grabbing my phone faster than you can say “the triple shot of espresso’s kicked in!” I dialed my friend in the Storm Water department who’s a real tree nut like me. Intrigued, she promised to investigate. But that would take time, she said. And time was something I didn’t have. So I started calling other city officials.
The Planning Department didn’t know what to tell me except that it wasn’t their department. Codes did not call for a Code Blue. And the Urban Forester, who’s supposed to be on the tree’s side, was no help at all! He declared that the tree in the alley wasn’t a boundary tree, something he had no way of knowing since he’d never even seen it, and this sent me running back to my Storm Water sister who said the Urban Forester was probably wrong. This almost calmed me down. Only one thing was certain: these developers could cut down those old Maples if they felt like it because there are no laws to protect them. Well! Those laws were well-thought-out, said no one who likes trees…
With every passing day I became more and more despondent. And maybe it was my dark frame of mind or the fact that I was totally sleep deprived, but when epiphany number two broke with the dawn one morning, I was sure I had found my answer: I’d chain myself to the Maple in front of the house, in protest, and call every media outlet in the city to come down and film me. They wouldn’t dare take the tree down then!
Of course, I’d have to have help. One can hardly chain oneself to a tree. And I might need someone to post bail if I was arrested or cover me with a tarp if it started to rain. I’d stock a backpack with water and power bars, and naturally, I’d have to wear Depends. What with all that water drinking I might even need to get a pair of Astronaut diapers. Sure, I’d make a spectacle of myself but it was for a good cause, I decided. And in that moment it sounded like a viable plan.
I shared my idea with everyone from the tree huggers to random friends just to try it on for size. And although some found it kind of charming and funny others were not amused, especially the real estate agent representing the developers. Oh yes, I called him too.
Me, sounding rational and calm: Do you know what the developers are planning to do with the mature trees on the property?
Him: I have no idea.
Me, sounding a little less rational and calm: Would you put me in touch with them so I can ask them?
Him: No. I will not.
Me, starting to lose my shit: Do you know how many trees you guys have taken down in this neighborhood?
Him: I have no idea.
Me, losing my shit in an octave so high it’s just a decibel below the sound only dogs can hear: Hundreds! And I can’t let these trees be next on the chopping block. If they try to take them down I’ll chain myself to the Maple in front of the house and invite every media outlet in the city to come down and film me!
Now if you’re wondering if I knew I sounded a little crazy right then, I can absolutely assure you that I did. As a matter of fact, I regretted sharing this information the moment I shared it. And from his abject silence, I absolutely knew that right then, this guy was picturing me as the cover girl of Nutcase Weekly. I took a breath.
Me, trying to sound remorseful: Sorry, I don’t mean to sound so emotional, but I care about those trees.
Him: You sound pretty emotional.
Me, pretending to ignore his condescending tone: Will you just take my name and number? Ask them to call me?
I gave him my information, something else I regretted sharing the moment I shared it because I knew he was taking it both to appease me, and as a precautionary measure should I decide to go postal. That could have gone better, I admitted, out loud, as I scoured Nashville.gov for the developer’s name.
As I searched, I pictured myself showing up unannounced at the developers’ office and fighting for those Maples in my Tree Police regalia. But these days, getting an unexpected phone call freaks people out, so imagine how an angry stranger showing up on your doorstep would go over, I thought. Besides, why get arrested for trespassing when you can get arrested for chaining yourself to a tree?
A threatening-yet-heartfelt letter is probably the way to go; I decided as I sat down at my computer and began to type. And it would be even better if it came from an actual organization; I smiled as I created the letter head for The Nations Tree Conservation Coalition. I was just putting the finishing touches on my missive when I was jarred by an unexpected phone call. It was my pal from Storm Water with good news: the Maple on the alley was a boundary tree and she’d be meeting with the builder the next morning to discuss its future and the future of the Maple in front. Unfortunately, she told me, I wasn’t invited. And I pretended I was OK with that.
But I might have been sitting in my car early the next morning, and I might have seen a Ford F150 pull up to the house, which could have been driven by the builder, so I figured I’d see for myself. Starting my Subaru, I eased on down the block, sidled up to that Ford and casually rolled down the window on the passenger side. A woman sat behind the wheel and for some reason, this gave me hope.
Me: Hi. Are you associated with this property?
Her: Yes. I’m the builder.
Me: Great! I live two doors down and I was wondering… are you gonna cut down those big, beautiful Maples?
Her: We try not to take down mature trees.
Me: Crickets in shock
Trading my first impulse to leap through the window and kiss her hard on the mouth for a less emotional response, I smiled, thanked her and drove off down the block. But I have to tell you, everyone at the NTCC was really excited and we had to pull over so we could scream with glee and pound the steering wheel for a minute. An hour later, when my Storm Water friend called to share the good news, I let her think she’d been the first one to know; after all, she was the one who’d ridden to the rescue that day.
This story has a happy ending, but there are still lots and lots of trees in this city that need to be protected. So the next time you see a tree that you think needs to be saved, be sure to think of me, standing at the ready, with a chain, a padlock and a big box of Depends.