Tag Archive | Suburbs

Grandpa Hamilton’s Forest

IMG_2861 (800x533)In 1907, my great grandfather bought a farm in the Sequatchie Valley in Tennessee. He had lived in the Sequatchie Valley all his life; in fact, his family had farmed in that valley since his own great grandfather settled there long before Tennessee became a state. Grandpa Hamilton had deep roots in farming, and even deeper roots in that part of the world.

The Hamiltons were not wealthy; he bought the land only after he sold another farm which had been given to him when he was married 18 years earlier. I would love to know who gave him a farm as a wedding present, but I don’t. Once he bought his new farm, he built a small house on it for his family to live in. There are three rooms in the house, plus a kitchen and a hallway, and off the side porch, there is another small room. In the back, there is a small building which covers the well and a small room behind it. I am sure there was an outhouse in the vicinity at one time, because there is no way to meet those needs in the house. There is a shed out front and a barn a hundred yards or so to the north of the house. In 1907, he had six children, ranging in age from 2 to 16; two more children were born in that house before his first wife died in 1916. I have no idea how ten people all got along in those four rooms, plus a kitchen.

Although the house is not large, Grandpa Hamilton did not seem to skimp on the details. Every room in the main part of the house has a brick fireplace. The ceilings are high, and there are plenty of windows. There are porches on three sides, a few cabinets and a good-sized sink in the kitchen, and a crawl space underneath. There is asbestos siding on the outside, a hazard now but a quality material then, and a metal roof on the top, although those may have been added later.  The house was built to last a long time.

And it has lasted a long time. 107 years later, it is still standing. The porch floors have rotted in places, and one corner of the roof covering the front porch has caved in. The wallpaper is peeling to reveal the lath boards underneath. Some of the faces on the fireplaces are crumbling, most of the windows are broken, some of the doors don’t close all the way, and the floor is a bit uneven. But the house is still there.

Besides building that simple but sturdy house, though, Grandpa Hamilton did a remarkable thing. With roots as deep as his in that valley and in the business of farming, he knew the value of the land he owned. However, he set his house off the road a good bit, and around the house and between there and the road, he preserved several acres of trees. They were large trees of species native to that area: walnut, hickory, oak, cedar, and others. My dad wrote to me a few years ago recalling about his grandfather that “squirrels and birds thrived, and he allowed only very limited hunting when damage could be observed in the barn bins.”

Grandpa Hamilton and his sons mowed the weeds around the woodland, and they planted acres and acres of corn and other crops out back. But they left that land around the trees undisturbed. His grandson and great-grandsons who still farm the land have kept up that practice, and the woodland has remained so thick that it is impossible for a person to penetrate. It is much like I imagine most of the land in that part of the world looked before people came along to cut down the trees, hack out the undergrowth, till the soil, and sow their crops.

For the past 30 years or so, no one has cleared the brush from around the house, either. And while Grandpa Hamilton’s trees and their offspring have almost overtaken the house now, with some of the trunks so close that they seem to climb the exterior walls, I wonder if the trees he preserved are part of what have kept that simple building standing for so long. The unused houses and barns up and down the valley which are not surrounded with trees show their vulnerability to the wind and the rain. They have roofs and walls which are caving in and frames which are leaning. But protected from the wind and all but the heaviest of rains, Grandpa Hamilton’s house still stands in the forest he set aside out of his farmland.

Grandpa Hamilton was no progressive. From what my dad tells me, he called Franklin Roosevelt one of the worst things to happen to this country. I can just imagine my father as a young boy listening as his grandfather repeated that strongly-held opinion to him, loudly, over and over again; he would not have been the first old man who held tightly to his view of the world as the world changed around him. But he was ahead of his time in at least this one regard: he valued nature, and he worked to preserve it, even if that meant giving up some of his precious farmland.

In the suburban community where I live, I recently had a conversation with someone about trees. I have made my feelings about trees and the way they are treated in our suburban community known before. In this conversation, I talked about whether it would be possible to plant some new trees where some ancient but dead specimens of native magnolia, sweetgum, live oak, and hickory nut have recently been removed. The person I was talking with agreed that it would be good to replace the removed trees. But the varieties were another story. “Those trees are all messy,” she said. “They drop leaves, branches, and litter all over the yard. Maybe we can find some modern hybrids of those same kinds of trees. No one is going to want those trees around that they have to clean up after!”

And I was mystified. I wanted to scream: “They are trees; of course they drop leaves and branches. The leaves and branches can be removed, or even better, they can be chopped up and used to enhance the soil under the trees. That is the way those varieties of trees have thrived in our area for millions of years before we came along!” But I let my suburban sensitivities get the better of me, and I just smiled politely.

I think Grandpa Hamilton and I would have at least a few things in common.

Tree Removal?!?

IMG_7388 (533x800)Last Friday, I was at home alone while my son was in school and my wife was at a conference.  I was painting the trim in our bedroom, a tedious task, but one which I did not want to have interrupted.  The dog became agitated, so I knew someone was probably coming to the door.  I looked out the window, and a man was sitting up in the back of a pickup truck which was driving slowly down the street.  He waved a friendly wave, and another man came up the driveway.  That man handed me a business card, pointed at the River Birch which stands a few yards outside my front door, and said, “Your tree here:  we’ll take it down, haul it away, grind up the stump, uhhh… three hundred dollars.”  He looked at me like he expected me to sing a Doxology at his offer to make the River Birch vanish as if it had never even been there.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  How does one respond to an unsolicited offer like this one?  I wanted to ask him with as much condescension as I could muster, “why would I want to remove a perfectly healthy, mature tree?”  I wanted to inform him, “I have seen tree after tree come down in this neighborhood; I am not going to let you destroy another one!”  I wanted to preach to him, “the world, and especially this part of this city, needs more trees, not fewer.”  I wanted to drive him away, not just from my driveway, but from my neighborhood as well, “what gives you the right to go around encouraging people to cut down perfectly healthy trees?”

Instead, I swallowed my righteous indignation and answered him with a bit more professional respect.  But only a bit.  “We might need a little trim, but we wouldn’t want to cut it down!”  He muttered something about trimming a few branches, I promised to talk with my wife about what we might do, and he and his colleagues continued down the street to spread their generous offer of cheap removal of healthy, mature trees.

I looked at the business card on the way into the house:  “B & C Tree and Lawn Service:  No Job Too Large or Small.”  There was nothing about the qualifications of the technicians who would be servicing the trees or the lawns which might be put under their care.  There was nothing about the number of years the owners had been doing this kind of work or the availability of references from satisfied clients.  There was only the promise that size does not, in fact, matter to them and the phone number to call to have my tree removed.

The encounter made me wonder:  why did the proprietors of B & C Tree and Lawn Service think it would be worth their time to make unsolicited offers to remove trees from our neighborhood?  And the answer is obvious:  because people in our neighborhood might want to get rid of their trees.  In a typical suburban neighborhood like ours, trees can easily be considered a problem.  Trees are not orderly or neat.  Trees drop leaves, twigs, and even whole branches.  Trees are home to birds and other fauna who make messes on clean cars.  Trees grow unevenly sometimes:  they droop over here, making us duck our heads, and they lean over there, making everything look a bit off-kilter.

Trees are opposed to the suburban ideal.  The suburbs were developed as a way for the middle class to escape the problems of urban neighborhoods while still avoiding the problems of real nature.  Real nature is disordered, unpredictable, even chaotic.  It does not conform to any ideals of balance or symmetry in design.  It does not follow any standards of behavior, and it does not respect clearly delineated boundaries of space.  Nature cannot understand the difference between a place which ought to be clean and a place which can be dirty, or a place which demands a lot of light and a place which should be shaded.  Nature just grows, and spreads, and then when it is done, it falls back and dies, only to grow again the next year.  Nature is problematic to anyone with an impulse to control, to bring order, or to keep some standards of neatness and cleanliness.  Nature is kind of like God in that way.

The impulse to control nature is one I understand, even if I do not believe it is in the long-term best interests of our community or our planet.  I was pleased to read a piece on the editorial page of the Savannah Morning News this morning written by Jerry Flemming, the City of Savannah’s Director of Parks, Trees, and Cemeteries.  In his column, Mr. Flemming spoke about the large population of fall webworms in our city this year.  Fall webworms are caterpillars which spin webs in trees.  The webs surround leaves, which the webworms then eat.  Once they have eaten all of the leaves inside their webs, they expand the webs to encompass more leaves.  This year, because we had a mild winter and a wet spring and summer, there are more fall webworms in our city’s trees than normal, and property owners have apparently been calling the city with concerns.

I understand the concerns because the River Birch in our front yard, which the B & C Tree and Lawn Service offered to obliterate for me, has sustained a particularly prolific population of fall webworms this year.  Last month, the meatiest part of the leaves on most of the tree were eaten away, and only the lacy remains of the veins were left.  Then, the fall webworms fell to the ground and started looking for a place to pupate.  Each day for a week or so, scores of fall webworms crawled their way across the cement floor of my front porch and up my front door.  My wife refused to use that door.  My son was fascinated as long as he could see them from a distance.  It was gross.  Nature is not helpful to those of us with an impulse to control, to bring order, or to maintain some standards of neatness.

Within a few days, though, the webworms stopped coming, and a good squirt with the garden hose got rid of the remains of the creatures which I had not been able to sweep into the azalea bed in front of the porch.  In the mean time, I had done my research:  fall webworms are harmless to the trees because they eat the leaves at just about the time they will die anyway.  The tree will leaf out again next spring, and once we get a good freeze or a surge in natural predators to control the population, all evidence of the infestation will be gone.  So there really is no need to do anything about the webworms.

That was more or less the advice which Mr. Flemming gave.  However, in the final paragraph of his column, he gave this caveat:  “If you have a highly valued ornamental, fruit or nut tree and are concerned, call an arborist. If the caterpillars or moths are invading your home, call a pesticide applicator.”  And in many ways, I wish he hadn’t said that.  I worry that it is too much of a nod to those people who cannot forbear this little bit of the chaos of nature invading their neat, ordered, suburban yards.  I worry that it encourages homeowners to try to control the problem anyway by calling in the “experts” and offering them healthy profits for spraying God-knows-what kinds of chemicals which will end up in our groundwater and rivers.  I worry that, instead of calling qualified arborists, who will calmly counsel them to just wait for the webworms to go away, his advice will encourage my neighbors to call people like the owner of B & C Tree and Lawn Service.  Because I know that, for three hundred dollars or so, B & C Tree and Lawn Service will happily oblige the homeowners’ disgust and fear of this most recent infestation of nature by removing the trees altogether.  No Job Too Large or Small.

The world needs more healthy mature trees, not fewer.  I wish the owners of B & C Tree and Lawn Service recognized that.  I wish my neighbors who have removed perfectly fine trees from their yards recognized that.  I wish the purveyors of the suburban ideal recognized that.  I wish the City of Savannah’s Director of Parks, Trees, and Cemeteries communicated that clearly, repeatedly, and without any qualification.  Why would I want to remove a perfectly healthy, mature tree?

Cedar Grove Cemetery

As my dog, Otis, and I explored our neighborhood today, I got to thinking:  little can subvert the power of modern suburbs like a cemetery.

At one time, the land I live on was a small part of the Cedar Grove Plantation.  I have not been able to learn much just yet about what happened on the plantation:  the precise boundaries, the lives of the owners and slaves who lived here, what they grew, how they came to be here, or the answers to any number of other questions.  What I know is that after the Civil War, a group of freed field slaves came from a plantation on St. Catherine’s Island, down the coast a ways from Savannah, and settled on a portion of the plantation.  A few years later, the owner of the plantation, John Nicholson, sold 200 acres of his land to those freed slaves, who set up the community of Nicholsonboro.  Part of that community’s land was developed in the mid-1980s into the suburban neighborhood where I now live.

In looking for information about Nicholsonboro and Cedar Grove Plantation, I ran across a reference to a Cedar Grove cemetery.  According to a newspaper article from 15 years ago, some of the settlers of Nicholsonboro were buried there.  My imagination started to make some connections.  Of course:  the old plantation would have had its own cemetery, where at least the slaves would be buried. After the plantation began to be subdivided, new residents of this land would live and die and probably be buried in the same place.  A cemetery would not be bulldozed to make room for the tract after tract of houses which now fill the area that was one time the plantation.  So, the cemetery must still be around here somewhere.

I was curious.  I searched online for Cedar Grove Cemetery; none of the mapping services could point me to a Cedar Grove Cemetery anywhere in Savannah. The only references I found were in the archived obituary pages of the Savannah Morning News, offering only information like, “After graveside services in Cedar Grove Cemetery; a repast will be offered in the church hall.”  These references only gave me hope; people are still being buried there, so it must still exist.  I tried driving up Cedar Grove Road, which turns off of the main White Bluff Road some distance north of my street, but that only led me through another suburban neighborhood and to a fence surrounding the grounds of the Savannah Country Day School.  After a chance conversation at work last week led me to a website called “findagrave.com” I finally learned that the Cedar Grove cemetery is at the end of Largo Drive.  So this morning, I put my dog on the leash and headed that way.

Largo Drive is a main thoroughfare through the Windsor Forest subdivision.  At its southern end, it is lined with moderately sized, single-story, ranch-style homes on average size lots.  They look like they were constructed in the 1970s or 1980s, although they are very well-maintained.  Some of the homes have brick facades, some have wood or vinyl siding, some have a tasteful mix of both.  Most have two-car garages and driveways to match.  They have well-kept lawns, many of which have one or two large oak trees in them.  As I approached the end of Largo Drive, I saw several American-made pickup trucks hitched to flat trailers parked on the side of the streets, a familiar site in neighborhoods where lawn services are contracted to mow and trim.  I saw a middle-aged woman taking a handful of items through her wooden gate to the trash cans in her back yard.  I saw an older man on a motorized wheelchair passing along his driveway, looking like he was ready to do some chores on the other side of his fence.  It is a quiet, pleasant neighborhood which seems to fulfill all of the promises of a suburban development:  cleanliness, order, comfort, privacy, and relative affordability for the middle class.

I came to the end of Largo Drive.  At the end of Largo Drive are some barricades placed by the city traffic department.  They are painted with reflective paint in diagonal orange and white stripes.  They are set up in a way that it makes it clear they are intended to stop any traffic, auto, pedestrian, canine, or otherwise, from traveling beyond the end of that street.  On the other side of the barricades is a tall, wooden fence, which defines the back of the yards of the much-newer houses in the next development over; that is a gated community, and the developers apparently didn’t want to put in an additional gate, not to mention lose a couple of developable lots, by extending Largo Drive into their tracts.  Between the reflective barricades and the tall wooden fence, though, there runs a gravel-covered alleyway.

I was confused; there was clearly no cemetery here at the end of Largo Drive.  More exploration was necessary.  Otis and I could just fit through a careless, narrow gap in the traffic barricades, so we entered the alleyway and headed to the right.  The alleyway was lined with the high wooden fence of the new development on one side, and the wooden fences delineating the boundaries of the back yards of the ranch-style homes on the other side.  Between the alley and the fences on each side were trees and brush which shaded the gravel we walked on.  Soon, the wooden fence on the side by the older homes changed to a chain-link fence, and we could see a plot of land where no house stood, only trees.  In front of us was a gate.  The “Find a Grave” website had warned that the 10-foot fence surrounding Cedar Grove Cemetery would only be opened by the caretaker at the request of a member of the family of someone buried there.  But today, the gate was wide open, so we walked in.

Parts of the cemetery were well-kept; parts were cluttered with weeds and old arrangements of funeral flowers.  A section of the hollow steel pipe which topped the chain link fence along one side had been bent low by a fallen limb.  Some grave stones stood proud and gleaming, while others had faded or broken.  Some of the graves were clearly very old; a couple others bore dates from 2011 or 2012.  Several of the graves were built with vaults surrounded by brick which stand above ground, topped with concrete, probably owing to the proximity of the marshes and Hoover Creek a few hundred yards away.  In a couple of these, the name and relevant dates of the deceased were written in the concrete top by a finger,  rather than chiseled in block letters by a skilled craftsman or engraved in a bronze plaque like on the other graves.  Several of the stones noted important service rendered in the lives of the people they remembered:  “PVT 1st Class, US Army, WWII,” “Deacon of the Church,” “Loving Mother.”  A number of older stones lay on the ground; one or two still stood, albeit somewhat eroded, and I noticed that the date of birth inscribed on at least one was before the time when life for the slaves on Cedar Grove Plantation was interrupted by the secession of the Confederate states and the subsequent war.

As Otis and I explored, I realized that it felt like the cemetery didn’t want to be found.  It had hidden itself down the narrow alley, behind the houses, surrounded by tall oaks and chain link.  The weeds gave it a wild feel.  Sharp-pointed burrs grabbed onto my socks and shoelaces, and one even jabbed itself into my dog’s front paw, requiring both Otis’ teeth and my fingers to try to get it out.  I am not sure why that cemetery doesn’t want to be known.  Maybe its desire for privacy is driven by deference to the pride of the honorable people buried there.  Maybe it wants to show respect for the grief of the mourners who seek peace and comfort in the face of death.  Maybe it feels some shame for its disorder in the midst of the lawns which are so meticulously cared for by the contractors driving those pickup trucks hitched to trailers lining the streets a few yards away.

Despite its attempts to be lost, though, the cemetery still took up that space.  And I found a significance to its steadfast witness in the middle of the modern suburbs.  Suburban neighborhoods like those I walked through and the one I live in were designed, laid out, and developed to feel like nothing occupied the land before them.  They promise that they will be clean, ordered, comfortable, and private for the people who live in their houses.  They are modern, not only in design but also in philosophy:  they embody the triumph of human ingenuity, technology, and power over nature, over history, over poverty, and over just about any other force which might introduce confusion or disorder or chaos into our lives.  They represent progress, so all that is in their view is the present and the future.

But no one would dare to bulldoze a cemetery, so it remains, and as it remains, it forces its neighbors to look to the past.  It remains as a reminder of the plantation which once occupied the land now taken up by the suburban neighborhoods.  It remains as a reminder of the evil foundation of the plantation system:  the idea that a person can gain personal wealth by owning another human being and requiring that human being to work until he or she dies.  It remains as a reminder of the chaos of war, of the disorder which comes after the defeat of an evil system, of the confusion of what to do when the inevitability of death hits each of us in the face.  It remains as a reminder of the nature of nature:  of trees whose limbs can crush a suburban fence, and weeds which poke at domesticated life, of rain and wind which erode our memorials to honorable soldiers and deacons and mothers.  And as it remains there, surrounded by tall fences and well-kept houses and lawns and driveways, its power subverts the promise of the suburbs, and along with it, modernity itself.