Anyone can dig a tree out of the ground. I know this because I’ve done it. I wasn’t satisfied with just cutting down those two plums and an apple in my backyard—Can’t leave behind anything for the little guy to trip on!—so I tore out the stumps, too. They weren’t so much living things as tasks to complete on my way to landscaping perfection. So I hacked and sawed and excavated until I could wrench them free. And then I threw them on the compost pile.
To rip a tree from the only home it’s ever known with the goal of keeping it alive takes a special mix of brute force and delicate coaxing. It takes the right tools and methods; clean, sharp shovels make the best cuts and reduce the chances of an infection weakening the roots. It takes an understanding of the growing season; you want to transplant after the ground thaws but before late spring, when the tree wakes from its dormancy and begins replenishing its energy stores. In other words, it takes care—something of which I had none and Bernie has a surplus.
He’s not perfect. He estimates that 40 percent of his transplants haven’t survived. And he gets legitimately upset when he does that math. But then I remind him that 100 percent would have been turned to mulch had he not taken them, and he brightens. “I’ve never thought of it that way,” he says. “All of them would have been cut down.”
I’ll admit, there were moments as I guided the chainsaw through those trunks that I felt … something. Not really guilt because, as I rationalized it then, I paid for that backyard. Instead, maybe it was a fear of what the neighbors thought; they knew the previous owner, an elderly woman who, decades earlier, had raised two boys in that house. Were they judging me for tampering with her little version of perfection? I pushed away the thought and cracked a beer to celebrate the fruits of my labor.
At Bernie O’Brien’s farm all these years later, though, standing among the forest that he inherited and augmented, I couldn’t help but think of that woman and those trees. Maybe they meant nothing to her and her husband. Maybe they planted them without thinking about how big they’d really get. Maybe they hated them.
But what if she picked the apples to bake pies that cooled on the kitchen windowsill? What if he loved birds and hung feeders from the plums’ branches? What if their boys played tag back there, chasing each other around the trunks and hiding in the high branches?
Not every tree is special. Even Bernie knows that. They all have a history, though, even if we can’t see it.