The English don't care for trees growing close to their houses. Trees block out the light and attract insects, and having them back a ways affords a better view. When I first moved into the house I live in now, there was a row of old pine trees spread in front of the living-room picture window. I decided to cut them down, and I knew Mrs. Costas would not approve.
Mrs. Costas, you see, as well as being the self-declared official protector for the Brazilian rainforest, or at least as official as one can get, was also the unofficial spokesman for all trees in the immediate neighborhood, and some in bordering towns and states. Despite this, Mrs. Costas and I hit it off as friends. We were both first-generation immigrants, she from Greece and I from England.
But when she and I start to talk about vacations, or the price of digital watches, or whether we remember birthdays (it really doesn't matter what the subject is), invariably the conversation gets around to the destruction of trees, and my involvement in it.
She takes great delight in reminding me of when I removed those scraggly firs that were blocking the light, or the time I took down part of a birch bough that swayed dangerously with each wind.
I tell her that I have planted more trees than I have destroyed, and that I have done this to improve the view, which she also enjoys from her house, opposite mine.
In vain do I endeavor to engage her in reasonable discussion about the harvesting of trees so that she sees how careful pruning and management actually improve them. Trees are trees are trees, as far as Mrs. Costas is concerned, and nothing can sway her from her position that all trees must be left inviolate and pure, regardless of their situation or condition.
One Saturday in the dead of a very cold winter, we invited Mr. and Mrs. Costas over for dinner. As usual, we lit a fire in the woodstove. By the time the Costases arrived, the flames were dancing gaily, and a luxuriant warmth filled the room. Nothing in our conversation mentioned trees.
Finally, it was Mrs. Costas who spoke.
"Those flames are so delightful," she said, her strong Grecian accent filling the room. There were a few moments of silence, and then she spoke again. "Are these the trees that you took down last year?"
I was quick to note that she did not say "destroy," "devastate," or "ruin" - her usual euphemisms for the annihilation of her beloved trees. I replied that, yes, they were.
She gazed into the flames, occasionally extending her hands, spreading her fingers out as though to capture as much of the warmth as possible. Then she turned to me.
"I feel the heart of those trees in these flames," she said.
I thought for a moment that this was an introduction to another lecture; that Mrs. Costas would now tell me the trees were crying out to her through the flames, or that the flickering passion in these flames was the last convulsion of a dying oak or ash.
She went on: "When you chopped them down, I felt I would miss them. Now, they are in this room, their warmth, their character, their presence."
Caught off-guard, I struggled to find words that were less defensive, that didn't sound as though I were trying to either justify my position or to appear patronizing.
In that long moment, I thought of all that I knew about trees. I thought of the little girl in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," growing up in a tenement slum, and how the sight of a majestic tree rising from the unyielding concrete was a sign of perseverance and hope.
Then I realized that my thinking about trees was far too practical to be an argument for those who love trees for their own sake, and not because they landscape our yards, supply lumber for our homes, or even rejuvenate the world's air supply.
I suppose it's like loving people, not for the situations they might be in, or for what you want them to be, but simply because they are people. It's tough to see past the peeling bark, the decayed branches, or the trembling limb. But if you do, and I think this is what Mrs. Costas probably sees, then you can see something quite beautiful, capable of replenishment and restoration.
I think this is what Mrs. Costas was seeing in the flames. And I wanted to tell her that I could agree with her about her love of trees, however they appear. But she redeemed me from my confession.
"I need to take care of my trees," she said. "I just let them grow, and that's not good enough. I think I should learn to prune them, and fertilize them...." She hesitated, closed her eyes for a moment, and then said, "... and just love them a little more in different ways."
Now we had walked toward each other from our pigeonholes and stands. We'd found the place where we could feel comfortable with each other and with ourselves.
The following day, I walked over to Mrs. Costas's house with a nursery catalog, and showed her several trees that I had circled as replacements for the trees I'd taken down. Her husband showed me his catalog with the saw that he will buy to remove the dead trees at the end of their garden.
In our imaginative idealism about beauty, perfection, and excellence, there must be a myriad of compromises that we can employ. Compromises that do not destroy or deny, but that enhance our perception of the loveliness in them.
Mrs. Costas's idealism about her beloved trees enables her to see them as lovely and worthy of the utmost protection. My pragmatic standards about how trees should look and be enable me to care for them.
I have a feeling that I will have to purchase two trees for every one I intended to replace.