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Disappearing Elm

Two days ago, my neighbor cut down her tree.

It was a wide-canopied elm that swept its branches over the fence separating our two yards, but I was never upset about the intrusion. Quite the opposite: I tucked our hammock under the canopy and would often lay, looking up at the insects and birds making a home in between the leaves.

Then two days ago, the man she hired to cut it down knocked on my door. He needed to get in our yard to access some of the branches, to make sure the tree fell the right way. I watched him trim wide branches, then take out the entire trunk until there was nothing left.

I find myself surprisingly bereft at this loss, like a swift, unexpected punch to the gut. Breathless. I look out at the space where the elm used to hover, and I can see a view that was blocked before. I stare at it, frowning.

My feelings are magnified by this same neighbor’s disdain for our own foliage. My fiance and I are renting, bound to the whims and wills of our landlords. When the neighbor complained that the branches and seed packets of the trees on our property were dropping into her gutters, our landlord decided it was easier to simply cut them all down.

Ten trees.

In one afternoon, we went from having ten trees to none. All because their fruits were a nuisance to the property owner next door.

And then, a few months later, she took a chainsaw to her own canopy, disappearing the last bit of shade on our side of the fence.

In a city, every tree matters. Every bit of shade can drop the temperature, fighting the heat of concrete and asphalt. I know this, but I’m sure she doesn’t. I’m sure she feels her actions are inconsequential to anyone else. It’s her property, after all. She deserves to do whatever she wants with it.

And yet.

I can’t comprehend this urge we have as humans to control nature to such a degree. The trees were healthy, homes for birds and bugs. But they warranted a moment of labor here and there—unclogging the gutters, sweeping the walk—and that was simply too much to accept. I would’ve done it myself, if they’d asked, for the sake of keeping those branches alive.

How did we get to this place of bending nature to our will? Yanking oil from the depths, despite spills and fires and earthquakes, deciding it’s worth it if we can fuel our needs. Clearing forest after forest in favor of development. Tossing nature aside the moment it’s a slight inconvenience.

What is our obsession with this kind of control?

It strikes me that this pattern doesn’t end with the non-human world.

The desire to control women, to tell us what to do with our bodies.

The desire to control queer people, to tell them who they should love.

The desire to control trans people, to tell them how they should identify.

I desperately wish we could let go of this instinct to control. How much better would our lives be if we learned to live alongside rather than instead of? How much freer could we feel if we found the compatible spaces, learning to listen rather than consume?

I laid down in the hammock today, the first time I could bring myself to do it. A few stray twigs cling in between the ropes. Almost immediately, I close my eyes, imagining the leaves swaying above me, the caterpillars working their way through leaves, the birds twittering on branches. I try to ignore the sun hot on my forehead. I pretend for as long as I can until I can’t be convinced.

When I open my eyes, an airplane cruises through an empty sky. This is not it, I think. This is not the world we were meant for.


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