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Trees in the city have their own kind of street smarts


It is short and skinny. But when I glance at the new tree in the front of the house, I feel proud.

Getting that tree in the ground was an effort that took several months, a series of phone calls and the false promise of a parking space.

In the parlance of urban America, the sapling is a "street tree." That means it is planted in a 4-foot-by-3-foot patch of earth next to the street. It takes a tough tree to survive in these circumstances. But somehow street trees confound logic and push up toward the heavens, covering the pavement beneath them with welcome shade.

In addition to water, street trees seem to require a sense of consensus. I found this out when I went through the process of replacing an ailing street tree with a new one.

A dying street tree is not unceremoniously yanked from the ground. First, notice is given.

A guy like me can report the suspected death of a street tree to the city's Forestry Division, but the diagnosis must be confirmed. You know the forester agrees with you when a notice is posted on the tree saying it is deadwood.

Even then there is time for appeal. Friends of the soon-to-be-deceased tree can call the forester and raise objections to its removal. Apparently the old maple near my house had no friends. That did not surprise me because in its declining years the tree was in the habit of dropping dead branches on the sidewalk and street below.

Moreover, I had talked with the tree's likely constituents, the folks living in the condominiums next door. They shared a view of the tree and agreed that the time had come to turn the sickly maple into firewood.

Upon hearing no objections, a forestry crew eventually cut the tree down. I came home from work one evening to see that the crew had made quick work of the maple. All that was left was a stump.

But getting the stump removed was difficult. That was because the stump removing machine, a fearsome-looking device with long stump-grabbing claws, needed a parking place right next to the tree well. And parking is tight on my street.

And when I called the forestry folks again to arrange for stump removal, I made a rash promise. I said I could guarantee the stump removal machine a parking space.

Fine, the stump guys said, we'll be there first thing tomorrow. I hurried home to park in the space next to the stump. But when I got there I saw the spot was already taken.

I spent much of that night trying to locate the owner of the stump-blocking car. I put notes on the car's windshield. I made phone calls. I peered out the front window of my house, hoping to see the car pull away.

But the next morning when the stump guys arrived at my door, right on schedule, the car was still there. It was early, it was cold, I was wearing slippers with no socks, but I ran from door to door ringing doorbells, trying to rouse the car owner. I didn't have any luck.

The stump guys left, worked on another job and came back a few hours later. The car was still blocking the stump.

I thought I had seen the last of the stump guys.

I was wrong. They returned a few days later when the car was gone. I don't know how the stump guys knew the car would be gone. Maybe they just sensed it. I never saw them, I just saw the results of their work. One night I came home and saw that what once was stump was now sawdust.

It was winter by the time the stump got yanked, not a good time to plant a tree. So while waiting for spring, I thought about what kind of tree would replace the old maple. Instead of going for a standard-issue street tree from the city, I had elected to cough up a little cash and, in a deal worked out with the neighborhood association and a nursery, would pick my own tree.

I pondered the pear, considered the linden.

Finally, after clearing the choice with the condo next-door neighbor who also kicked in some cash, I got a zelkova.

Once it got planted, I did all the usual tree-hugger stuff, like take a photograph of the tree with one of my kids standing next to it. I plan to take yearly photos marking how fast the kid and tree grow.

For me this skinny sapling is a sign of fresh hope in an old city. The poet said that only God can make a tree. But for street trees it takes persistence and collective bargaining to get one planted.

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