California Buckeye Leaves

Every spring, the wood chipper shows up. One morning, Fargo-like, it just appears . . . always while I’m in my bathrobe, never after I’ve quaffed my caffeine . . . busting ear drums with the metal-on-metal industrial grind. I have to throw on my sweats and stumble on over to the tree-trimming crew with my phone number. “If you find a nest with babies, please call me. I work with wildlife.”

Once we’ve brewed up some Cole’s yirgacheffe, I make my annual call to the city’s tree-trimming division: “Yep, it’s me again. Still disappointed in the massive spring pruning operation. Would you reconsider?” And every year, a lovely person at the other end insists there’s no other way to conduct this business, what with overhead wires and liability and such. And, of course, she reminds me — trimmers look out for nests. She knows this usually appeases everyone . . . everyone but me.

It is against Fish and Game code to “knowingly” and “needlessly” destroy an active nest. You can read more about that in Wildcare’s primer: Don’t Trim Your Trees in Spring! The tree trimmers I’ve met, most of them nice guys, assure me they look for nests. The problem is, the likelihood of seeing a nest as small as a hummingbird’s is slim when you’re engaged in a wholesale chopping and shredding operation, as many of these city trimmers are. The best solution, as Wildcare suggests, is to avoid trimming trees in spring. That way, you’re not disrupting nesting parents or babies. Baby birds and squirrels are killed and orphaned due to this practice — one which can usually be accommodated at other times of the year.

One Tree: A Year in the Life

That’s my slightly-divergent but still-pertinent lead-in to a post about my beloved tree. It’s a California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) that sprouts, blooms, fruits, and, ultimately, wilts each yearly cycle, outside our bedroom window. It’s been our portal into the life sustained — the abundance afforded — by one single tree with its branches and blooms.

I actually thought of this post years ago, long before I had this blog. It was when our neighbor in Los Angeles cut down the one tree where our resident mockingbird sang. For several years, the Northern Mockingbird serenaded us every night from his solitary post on that tree. Once the tree crumbled to the lawn, our mockingbird never came around again. That was my personal version of the Silent Spring.

That tree cutting happened about the time Julia Butterfly Hill ascended the majestic Redwood she named Luna — ascended in protest of clear-cutting up in Humboldt County. From 180 feet up in the canopy, Julia relayed her experience and observations of life as seen from the perch in her Redwood. And she was tormented by the trees falling like toothpicks around her.

When you’re somebody that cares about the forest, and you see it destroyed at such an alarming rate without a thought about what they’re doing — actually they think about it, and to them, the bigger the tree, it’s like a buck with more points on the antlers. There’s no respect. The bigger the tree, when it crashes into the ground the louder their cheer is. The big ones? They totally enjoy it. You hear the incessant buzzing of the chain saws hour after hour until your ears are ringing with it, and then you hear the creaking and the groaning as it’s about to fall and then it sounds like thunder as it crashes through all the trees it has to hit on the way down and then it’s a loud bwaaam-boom! You can feel the earth trembling all the way up through Luna.

Knowing A Tree

It will sound strange to those who haven’t “known” a tree, but I get Julia’s sentiments. I can’t begin to rival the challenges she endured, living inside the branches of Luna. But in a different way, I’ve come to grasp the lunacy of our detachment from trees — from these vibrant bundles of habitat that are so quickly plowed over, cut, burned, decimated by us humans — “knowingly” and “recklessly,” to use Fish and Game terminology.

For the five years we’ve been in this place, we’ve lived at canopy height, in a [very] small but cheery flat, surrounded by foliage. The largest of the trees is the California Buckeye which has given us spectacular and often sentimental views into the miniature world that would be lost if this one tree were cut.

Honey Bee in Buckeye Tree

This is what we’ve experienced in our Buckeye tree:

  • Red-tinged House Finches and Goldfinches chattering away the afternoon, taking breaks just to snack at the neighbor’s feeder.
  • Pairs of Mourning Doves roosting and bonding before they build their nest.
  • Fox Squirrels sprawled across branches, dozing after a morning’s foraging.
  • Young Fox Squirrels just set free from their nest, leaping from tree to telephone pole to roof in abject joy.
  • Scrub Jays spying on squirrels burying their haul . . . then stealing the squirrel’s buried treasure.
  • Crows watching Scrub Jays steal squirrel’s nuts . . . then stealing Scrub Jay’s stolen goods.
  • Anna’s Hummingbirds resting and preening in the safety of leafy branches.
  • Winter migrating birds — warblers, Waxwings, Golden-crowned Sparrows and White-crowned, thrushes, wrens — sunning in the in the maze of the Buckeye’s branches which, even in winter, provides some cover from hawks.
  • Fledgling birds like Grosbeaks getting in their flying hours from the branches of the Buckeye.
  • Huge migration of butterflies descending at once onto the open blossoms of our spring tree: Painted Ladies, Admirals, Brown Skippers, Cabbage White and other butterflies either stopping or checking out the blooms.
  • Native Honey Bees — ostensibly immune to the toxic bee punch of the Buckeye — collecting their bee stuff with their wings covered in fine dust of Buckeye pollen. (Some non-native bees are susceptible to toxic effects from the California Buckeye. Local bees can adapt.)
  • Fragrance almost as sweet as Jasmine and Plumeria, wafting in through our window screens on spring nights.
  • Opossums sleeping the night away, wrapped around one of the tree’s thicker branches.
  • The burgeoning of California Buckeye fruits the size of pears — appearing in summer, then unraveling in the fall until just the core — the huge brown seeds — are strewn about in the autumn leaves. (The fruit/seed is toxic although squirrels can supposedly eat them without harm. They are large and difficult to crack, though, so I don’t see many squirrels digging into these pods.)

Butterfly in Buckeye Tree

Counting on the California Buckeye

Our migrating birds count on this tree each year when they return. Our honey bees pollinate, our traveling butterflies get sustenance for their annual marathons, songbirds get cover and roosting space, squirrels use the tree as a passageway in their world above and parallel to ours. And this is just a fragment of life pulsing in the branches of one, single tree. Living by the cycles of our Buckeye, it’s become inconceivable how trees en masse are clear-cut. I used to break down when we’d visit our old haunts in the Northwest, and see hilltops newly flattened by clear-cutting. Now, it doesn’t even take that magnitude of destruction for me to shed a tear over the lost life and potential in the leaves.

When the Berkeley Tree Sitters illegally occupied UC’s Oak Grove, they were subjected to a decent amount of public ridicule — and some anger over the resources expended over the tree-sitting issue. Whatever the pragmatic arguments on the opposing side, there’s an emotional component in the tree-sitters’ quest that’s impossible to quantify in days and dollars. That’s the version I understand more intimately than ever.

Sure, UC “owned” the trees, just as any of us has the ownership rights to cut trees on our own property. But the idea of ownership over what amounts to a rich and shared habitat — a wildlife commons on one level — is a cosmic injustice when you think of the ecological repercussions. Those ends deserve deeper scrutiny than they’re often given, whether it comes to altering a garden Ficus or an entire Redwood forest.

When I watched the trees in the Oak Grove come crashing down, it felt, as Julia described, like an earthly ripple — from the grove to our Buckeye tree. I tried to imagine how it would feel if, one day, our tree wasn’t there. I tried to envision life without the birds, butterflies and mammals who’ve made the tree their home, their sanctuary or their food source. And I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t wake up each morning in this bedroom I love, with the California sun pulsing through my blinds . . . and ever feel reconciled to my life without that tree.

In the same way that working with wild animals has altered my view of wildlife — helping me see their individuality, their personality, their sensitivity — living in the tree, metaphorically speaking, has forever altered my relationship to trees in general. I will never hear a wood chipper or a chainsaw without feeling sorrow. I will know that although our California Buckeye thrives just outside the window, somewhere else, an entire habitat (and home) is being lost.

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I put together a gallery of images I’ve shot throughout the seasons, marking the transformations in this California Buckeye and her residents. My earliest shots of the tree were taken with film, then with a point-and-shoot. I risked my foothold to reach way into the branches for macros. The Buckeye then saw me through my super-zoom phase, and then my new dSLR. Life events more significant than camera choice have transpired in her view, through our windows, and yet her transitions remain steady and predictable. Just as my cat is our constant on the pillow — the California Buckeye is our constant outside the slatted blinds.