When a tree falls in a backyard, everyone hears it

by Gautam Raja

Living in Southern California, we’ve had many visitors from Australia who exclaim in surprise as we drive back from the airport, “This looks a lot like home!”

One big, or rather many big reasons, are the eucalyptus trees. They aren’t native of course, but have been here so long that it’s complicated. The “gum trees” AKA koala buffets first came in the 1850s, during the California gold rush, to replace native oaks and other hardwoods that had been chopped down for buildings and other uses.

There’s a line of four eucalyptus trees on our property that are likely to be over 100 years old. They were probably planted during the eucalyptus boom of the early 1900s, when entrepreneurs thought they’d cash in on this fast-growing hardwood tree. That bubble burst when they realised that eucalyptus tends to chip and crack, so it’s not good for furniture. As firewood, it burns hot and long, but gums up chimneys with a coating that’s nearly impossible to remove.

One recent hot afternoon, one of those trees came crashing down, a result of root rot. With an over 40-foot-high double trunk from a base over six feet across, it laid down a lot of wood.

The eye-popping bill for removal made more sense when we saw how much work, how many people, and how many truckloads it involved. Eucalyptus wood is dense, so even the smaller rounds were a struggle to roll onto the trailer. Watching the workmen slog over two days, a few thoughts occurred to me. The first was a reminder at how controlled our environments are—that even a seemingly nature-filled backyard needed hours of work to keep it looking more like backyard and less like forest floor. Just one tree had to fall for us to require two working days of the services of a team of men with chainsaws, a large truck, an SUV and trailer, a woodchipper (a truly terrifying machine), and a machine on tracks known as a stump grinder.

We kept only a fraction of the tree as firewood, but I spent a good amount of time stacking logs where they will dry for the next six months. The work made me think about about how incredibly productive the land is for a family unit. Sure, it was a big tree, but looked at another way, an area of ground about the size of a bedsheet provided us enough recreational heating and cooking fuel for several years. People who start kitchen gardens have much the same realisation: finding that even a small patch of ground yields a bounty that’s hard to keep up with.

And finally, as I watched a giant tree disappear in two days, with the lawn neatly raked of all wood chips and leaves, I thought again about the work ethic in this country. I’d first consciously noticed it when employed at a shop that made mounted canvasses for artists. Nobody walked slowly on the job; they all raced from location to another. One of the new hires would deliver wood frames to us, and then actually run back to his post. The pay was hourly, so it’s not as if working faster would make them more money.

Similarly in our backyard, the team worked relentlessly. Sometimes there was laughter and banter, but they were largely quiet as they rent the hot afternoon with the roar of chainsaws, and hefted tons of wood onto truck and trailer. And then they left, leaving a quiet gap in the sky, and little for us to do but promise we’d fill it with a fine specimen of a native flora species.

First published in Gulf News, July 4, 2017