A Tree Falls in Berkeley

October 3rd, 2005

The buzz-saws are whirring outside. The big old magnolia tree behind our building just got reduced to little more than a stump, and by 5 p.m. it's scheduled to be gone completely. Apparently it was dying -- and the theory going around among my neighbors is that its illness was due to the management company's curious decision, several years ago, to cover the soil all around the tree with some heavy plastic material. Or maybe not so curious: it seems that the plastic simplified maintenance of the grounds, somehow.

The tree looked great eight years ago, when our son was born. We had just moved in, and he could see it from his crib. Its branches were lush, dark-olive-colored, elegant. I don't know much about magnolias -- in fact, truth be told, I'm not sure of the relationship between the tree and the flower (what is it? is the flower the blossom of the tree or some unrelated thing?) -- but I have the vague sense that the trees, at least, go back to dinosaur times. Or at least that's what we told our son, as he was going through his dinosaur-obsessed phase a couple years back. (Let me also mention here, gratuitously, that P.T. Anderson's beautiful 1999 film Magnolia never fails to lift my spirits. The soundtrack album is incredible, too, until -- as Daniel Handler has pointed out -- "the Supertramp songs come on and spoil everything.")

Lately we noticed that the branches were looking notably sparse. We hear now that the roots, denied water by the plastic, were unable to bring needed moisture to the rest of the plant. So we're upset at the management company for (allegedly) mistreating the tree and at ourselves for (definitely) not really focusing on the matter until now.

A glimmer of hope, as usual, comes from our amazing upstairs neighbor Tedi Crawford -- a grandma, an indefatigable volunteer at our local public school and in Berkeley at large, and just generally a great citizen. This weekend, Tedi called the woman who actually owns the building (the management company only manages it -- who knew?); the owner, also very sad about the de-magnoliazation, assured Tedi that a new tree (presumably a sapling) will be brought in as a replacement. Tedi suggests that when the new tree is planted, we residents do some sort of welcoming dance around it.

Which I think is a great idea. Also, we're going to look out the window now and then and make sure we don't see plastic covering the roots. ...

UPDATE: The magnolia tree has been completely removed. The workers looked very sad.

Entry Filed under: citizenship,let's digress


  • 1. Katherine  |  October 7th, 2005 at 11:15 pm

    Did the ‘management company’ do the deed of covering the base with plastic, or was it perhaps a hired landscape service? Just wondering because the company I work for had told a “licensed landscape gardener” that a tree on a property we manage, needed trimming back. Well, he did and our company got slapped with a good sized fine for cutting back this tree without a permit. Not only were we surprised by the fine, we rely on someone who should know if what we wanted done was indeed OK to do according to city codes. He was the licensed professional.

  • 2. Josh Kornbluth  |  October 15th, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    You know, Katherine, I don’t know the answer to that — good question. … Also, your story reminds me of when my late father — a Bronx boy who knew nothing about nature — somehow got himself hired as a gardener in Connecticut. When the owner (a dentist, as I recall) asked him to prune his apple tree, Dad innocently cut off all the branches! When the guy saw what what had happened to his prized tree, we literally had to go running from his house. Fun!

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