Have you ever fallen in love with a tree? I mean felt real affection for one? Before I saw Mr. Pine, I would have shrugged and said sure. In general, I care about all trees. On several occasions, I’ve even been called a tree hugger. But after I met Mr. Pine, I realized I’ve never really been in love with one before he came into my life.
I met him fifteen years ago on the first day we moved to Robertson County, Tennessee. It was love at first sight. Mr. Pine was a majestic spruce, 70-feet tall, 20-feet wide. He lived five yards from our front door. In his prime, when dark green needles and pinecones filled his limbs, he could have modeled Christmas swag in Rockefeller Center or on the White House lawn.
During our first year in the country, my mother-in-law, a real estate agent, had warned we should cut him down because one day he’d crash through our roof. She still tells the story of how horrified we had acted at her suggestion. We had naively answered that Mr. Pine was here long before we arrived, and he would be here long after we left.
Over the years, my feelings for Mr. Pine grew until they reached relationship status, the kind validated with highs and lows. It wasn’t always an easy one. For one thing, he was a prankster who dropped pinecones like water bombs, as though trying to hit us. He could also be a slob. He shed needles all over the deck, walkway, and front porch. The needles got caught in the dogs’ fur or wind, and they spread all over the house. Sometimes, they ended up in our bed.
But his unconditional friendship made up for all his flaws a hundred times over. He was a loyal neighbor who stood his ground through snow, ice, wind, and some wicked southern thunderstorms. He provided privacy for naked sunbathing, shade when we got too hot. Without fail, every single day, he stretched his limbs outside our picture window, coloring every morning in his deep green hue.
Mr. Pine also meant a lot to our neighbors. Goldfinches, cardinals, bluebirds, robins, wrens, and hummingbirds used him as a stop between flights. Countless squirrels and chipmunks found refuge in his branches from our posse of black cats. Once, we had even found a chicken hiding between low-hanging limbs. For fifteen years, he gave more than he ever wanted or needed to everybody he met.
Then, last summer I noticed Mr. Pine’s needles were thinning. I told myself it was the brutal heat. Who could possibly thrive when the heat index topped 100 degrees with 90-percent humidity? Fall came, then winter and still nothing bloomed. By the first week of March, some of his branches were completely bare. I couldn’t deny it any longer. Something was wrong with Mr. Pine.
The tree doctor was muscular, in his thirties, wore a crew cut and sleeveless shirt. Military tattoos covered his biceps and forearms. One read omertà in big black letters. Omertà is Italian slang for a code of silence and loyalty. (I only know this because of my obsession with the Sopranos.) I’m assuming the tree doctor’s tattoo had something to do with his military background because he didn’t sound like a Mafioso. He sounded like a country boy. The first thing he said was, “That thing ain’t nothing but a wind sail.”
I felt like someone had insulted one of our dogs. That thing? A wind sail?! I explained we loved that tree, and if we could do anything to save him, we would.
The tree doctor cocked his head and chuckled, probably thinking, “great, one of those damn tree huggers.” He repeated my mother-in-law’s warning from over a decade ago. If Mr. Pine didn’t come down, he’d crush our roof. Only now, Mr. Pine was sick. He was rotting from the inside out. It was just a matter of time.
I wasn’t at home when they cut him down. I couldn’t watch. Instead, I drove to a gas station parking lot, listened to a podcast about Dolly Parton, and cried. I told myself I was crying because Dolly’s story is so moving, but I knew it was because of Mr. Pine.
Mr. Pine has been gone for twenty-four hours. A stump is all that remains, and its sharp, clean evergreen scent is so strong it fills the living room. Now, the view outside our picture window is completely unfamiliar and not nearly as beautiful. I’m going to miss him for a long, long time. Mr. Pine taught me what it means to be in love with a tree.