Poems by John C. Weil

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Unorthodox Environmental Protection

by John C. Weil

From Canary Fall 2016

John lives amid the great Pacific Watershed in La Jolla, California, where he has helped to acquire more than 70 miles of open space at the San Dieguito River Park, part of the Pacific Flyway known as the Yosemite of Southern California.

On a warm summer morning in 1965, when I was twelve years old, my mom heard a peculiar noise in the forest behind our house. It wasn’t the usual wind, the sharp snap of twigs, or the rustle of an occasional deer wandering into our unfenced backyard. 

Mom’s concerned expression frightened me. She sat very still to listen. I gulped as she hurried outside with me in pursuit. A shabbily-dressed man rummaged around in the shadows of the pines just a few feet from our property line. I panicked because Dad and my older brother were at the hardware store.

The man was only 10 feet away holding a big roll of yellow ribbon. The scissors were pretty dull, so he kept trying to shred instead of cut. That rubbing of the scissor on the ribbon had made the ‘whirling’ noise Mom had heard. He tied a piece around the trunk of a big tree, then walked thirty feet to wrap a second tree. Each time he let the two ends hang like a kerchief. It looked like he was marking diseased trees.

Finally, Mom asked him what he was doing. “We’re building 120 houses,” he called out as he walked further away to mark another tree. We could hardly see him now. “I’m standing where a backyard will be. We’re saving one tree per backyard, which I mark with the ribbon.”

Oh, no, I thought. Our beloved woods were coming down. Hundred-year-old pines, maples, sycamores, all of it, coming down. The animals that wandered into the backyard would lose their homes. The deer that grazed at twilight, or licked at the salt block my parents put out for them in winter, would be wiped out.

“The houses will be there,” the man said, pointing just in front of him. The lots were obviously lined up like postage stamps. Mom knew right away that these would be tract homes, one right after the other, and only the exterior colors would change.

We walked despondently back to the house. We both knew that even Dad -- a man who could repair anything -- couldn’t fix this. But hours later he found out the name of the developer. Mom spent a long time on the phone with the man, but he refused to protect more trees. ‘Progress’ would soon bulldoze our beloved forest and change our lives forever.

The following morning, Mom and I drove quickly to the Five ‘n Dime. We always bought our stationery there. I assumed she was buying materials to make and blanket the neighborhood with flyers to organize a huge protest.

But minutes after we arrived home, the house seemed to vibrate. Two flatbed trucks carrying bulldozers rumbled past to a clearing just down the road. The men unchained the dozers. The metal against metal made a racket. Finally, they drove the huge beasts off the flatbeds.

We panicked. The dozers hit the ground with an enormous thud, then lurched forward, belching black smoke. The drivers let the motors idle for another ten minutes to charge the batteries. Mom was frantic. We both knew now that we were too late. The machines squatted like vicious dinosaurs as the drivers revved the huge engines and shouted to each other over the rumble.

Finally, they shut the dozers down. "Done,” one said to the other. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” They left in their pickup trucks. It was then that I fully understood the specifics of Mom’s plan. I had been wondering ever since we left the store. Mom had not bought paper to use for flyers. She had bought three big rolls of yellow ribbon, nearly a match for the ribbons affixed to the trees that were to be left standing.

Now we had the ribbon and scissors ready. I stood watch from the side yard while Mom waded into the forest. “Are you tying a ribbon on every tree?” I called out.

“No, then they’d know,” she said. “I can only put a ribbon on a few trees. But that’s better than what they planned to leave behind.” She cut and wrapped the first ribbon and moved on to another tree. For hours, Mom wrapped trees to be saved, designating two trees per backyard, groups of saplings and one tree on each likely front lawn.

As twilight came, she returned exhausted, dirt on her face, hair a mess. She clutched bare cardboard rolls and slipped her arm around me. “I had to try,” she said. She had wrapped about 360 mature trees. When we added on the 120 trees the developer had decided to save, that meant the new homes would feature about 480 trees, plus a couple hundred saplings.

Would this work? Only if the men operating the bulldozers had no idea how many trees were to be saved and only if trees were not marked on the plans. A lot of big ‘ifs,’ we realized.

That night we both tossed and turned. We just couldn’t quite believe this would fool them. In the morning I awakened to the throaty rumble of the two huge yellow bulldozers rocking back and forth, smashing trees. The violence was incomprehensible. Trees thumped the ground, shaking the windows on the house. We heard tearing, snapping, cracking roots being ripped from dirt and rocks. The roots rose up like hundreds of huge, arthritic fingers. Mom and I watched the carnage with tears in our eyes.

Each driver shifted long black knobs, pressed clutch, gas and brake pedals so the dozer plumed black smoke, rocked crudely, then rolled violently forward taking a tree with it. Wide tread prints like long patterns of braille led hundreds of feet into the forest.

The amount of dust was incomprehensible. We kept the windows closed. For hours we heard the sharp break of splitting tree trunks and branches. In no time the air thickened. After just a few minutes we completely lost sight of the dozers. A black and brown dust storm now blocked our view. We could only hear the bulldozers in the distance. But we could not see them or the trees anymore. We did not know if they were taking down our trees marked with yellow ribbon. I sat by the window staring at the thick black sky and feeling powerless.

Five hours later the rumbling abruptly stopped. An eerie silence lay over the neighborhood. I smelled pungent gasoline and exhaust. A cloud of dirt dust hung for the longest time, as thick as wool, dimming the sun. We still could not see a thing. My lungs ached with the dry dust, gasoline and burnt oil from the dozers.

Then I heard the men yelling to one another. They emerged from the black smoke -- faces filthy, hair coated with pine needles, plaid shirts soiled. They patted themselves off, high-fived each other, then drove away in their pick-ups. I was struck by how silent the pick-ups seemed compared to the abusive noise we had just experienced.

Now my entire family waited anxiously in the silence of the backyard as the dust slowly settled. Then we cringed at the awful destruction. Piles of felled trees extended acre upon acre. Roots were up-ended, holes in the ground looked like the aftermath of a bombing raid. I began to imagine the forest crying, hundreds of years of existence wiped out in a matter of hours. Yet to our utter surprise -- and joy -- two or three trees remained in each backyard, sometimes even four. In each front yard stood one big tree. The baby saplings Mom had wrapped were tenuously off to the sides, still standing, alone and thin, as if scared, but still alive. Each wore a fluttering yellow kerchief of survival. Piles of trees that were pushed to the sides towered above them. But we had won the battle of the trees. We had tied our yellow ribbons.

Today, when I visit my family, I like to walk outside to the backyard and look at the big trees that grace the sky. Indeed there are endless tract homes. The forest is gone. But in its place are the survivors, the trees saved by Mom. The saplings are now grown-up, and hundreds upon hundreds of trees still provide shade and homes to birds.

What she did might not be right for everyone. There is that side of the story. But in this case, the developer had refused to listen. Mom wanted to leave something for the animals and for the generations of people who would follow. What she did made an impression on me that I have never forgotten. She did not save the world, but she saved part of our world, and the results have lasted to this day.

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