Tree branches without borders

When limbs creep over property lines, neighbors can get testy.

Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Sidewalk canopy: City trees provide shade and scenery – and sometimes spark dispute.

I did not plant any of the trees on my property. I inherited them when I bought my house. Like most people, I considered the presence of trees on my tiny homestead to be a charming asset.

Silly me. I had yet to learn of the arboreal rivalries that occur in an urban setting.

Like animals in a zoo, trees on a city lot are not free to roam as they do in the wild. They must stay captive in their enclosures. Of course, you have a better chance of keeping a tiger in a chicken coop than the limbs of a spreading chestnut tree in its own backyard.

Therein lies the root of many neighborhood feuds. A fence is not enough to make good neighbors. Apparently, you need a chain saw.

My trees, like my 1940s-era house, were a bit tattered and worn when I acquired them. The gnarled apple tree does not produce what you would call a bumper crop. A few mealy fruits grow at the top limbs where only squirrels and raccoons can harvest them.

Yet the branches flower beautifully in spring and offer privacy between my neighbor’s house and mine.

One neighbor does not mind the branch tips kissing her upper deck. I have the same attitude when her wisteria vine takes a wrong turn into my hawthorn tree.

My neighbor and I are of the same generation: she a widow, I an empty-nester. We live alone and share an understanding of things that grow beyond our control.

Not all neighbors are so obliging, especially the nouveau homeowners. That is why I am secretly gratified that the giant oak in the yard behind me toppled in a winter storm.

I should feel ashamed. I live in Berkeley, Calif., a city that loves its trees so much that a flock of protestors nested in a redwood grove for nearly two years to keep the university from cutting it down.

I wasn’t home when the great oak in my neighborhood fell, so I didn’t have the satisfaction of hearing the mighty thud it must have made when it hit the dirt.

But there it was on New Year’s Day – prone, horizontal, with a giant ball of roots reaching up into the sky like some evil fairy-tale crone’s gnarled, grasping fingers.

This oak had been battling for decades over the fence with my Chinese elm. Despite this ongoing struggle for sunlight and fresh air, the elm grew like an umbrella over my backyard.

When I look out my windows or sit on my deck, I feel I am living in a treehouse without having to climb. So you can imagine my reluctance to cut it down when the neighbors suggested it. Even my periodic appeasement pruning broke my heart.

Then nature finally settled the debate, and my elm tree triumphed. The rivalry of trunks and branches, however, did not end. In the opposite corner of my yard, a plum tree lives at the intersection of three lot lines. In February, it produces a crown of pink blossoms always in time for Chinese New Year.

When early spring winds rage against it, the blossoms sprinkle the ground with a confetti of petals. Soon deep-burgundy leaves follow and then tiny, purple plums.

In winter, the dark, naked branches throw intricate patterns against the peach-sherbet Pacific sunsets. This is a tree that earns its keep year-round.

Imagine my indignation when the new owners of one of the houses demanded I cut it down. The young wife laid out her arguments on my front porch. She had planted a tree of her own right up against the back fence, less than a foot from my plum, and now she wanted my taller, older tree cut down so her new one could grow.

“Besides,” she said smugly, “your tree is dead. All the leaves dropped off.”

“Have you never heard the word ‘deciduous’?” I thought to myself.

“My tree has seniority,” I said. “I am never cutting it down.”

Of course her space-hogging tree has grown and crowds my elderly plum’s space. It produces no fruit, no blossoms; it just grows green with a sense of youthful entitlement more obvious season after boring season.

Each morning as I drink my coffee, I’ve taken to staring critically at my plum tree. Yes, I admit she is slowing down some. Spring brought fewer blossoms, summer fewer fruits. The lichen on some of the branches seems to be spreading.

Yes, the plum tree is not what she once was. Perhaps this will be the winter when a fierce storm takes her down like the mighty oak. Nature will take its course, but I will not hurry it along.

“Don’t worry, old girl,” I say each morning as I enjoy her silent swaying on the autumn breeze. “I know you’re doing your best.”

For in the end, resilience, tenacity, and dependability have to count for something, even in a tree. So I will stand by my plum as long as she can stand.

And quietly I hope someone does the same for me as I grow old beside her.

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