Claiming a bigger piece of Oregon sky

Chain saws roar in my back yard. Usually occupied by birds, newts, and the occasional rabbit, today it’s filled with people. Five workers from Oregon Coast Tree Company, four men and a woman, have trimmed the wild laurel off my fences and woodshed, opening up a six-foot-wide stretch to the sun. They’re cleaning up now, cutting last chunks of wood, raking leaves and scraps, feeding branches into the wood chipper. Kip Everitt is up in my giant Sitka spruce, cutting dead branches.

They did most of the work yesterday, leaving stark cuts all along the fence. Amputations. It’s not that I didn’t like the laurels. Their leaves were beautiful, with pretty flowers in the spring. They were home to birds, bees, and squirrels. I feel bad for what we had to do. But in the rain-soaked ground beyond the fence, their roots let loose, and the trees fell against the fence and the woodshed. Soon their weight would push these structures down.

The laurels had been leaning for a long time, some of the branches bent nearly to the ground but beyond my ability to trim with my loppers and my pole saw. I’m terrified of chain saws, of anything with blades. I have a bad back and funky knees. My arthritic wrists hurt just sitting here typing. These workers are young and strong. They pick up giant hunks of wood like sticks. They’re also fearless. They stand on roofs and fences and perch in trees, their chainsaws like extensions of their arms. Plus, they have the gear to deal with what they cut. It would take me years to dispose of that much wood.

And Lord, they are fast. In about four hours, they have transformed my yard. They have to be fast. They are booked two months in advance, interspersing painting, power-washing and other jobs between tree gigs. Things will not slow down when the winter storms start knocking down more trees.

I hear a “Woohoo!” as Kip drops a big branch off the spruce. It bounces on the lawn.

I love having this drama to watch out my office window. Soon the crew will be gone, and quiet will return. Annie and I will walk around the yard, absorbing its new look. For years, the area under the laurels has been covered with leaves. I gave up raking, declaring it a newt habitat. But now I’m thinking about planting something in the newly open space, a hedge perhaps, maybe rhododendrons. The newts have plenty of habitat outside the fence.

I don’t want to compete with nature, but sometimes I have to defend my space. Trees still surround my home like tall, wise guardians. With luck, they will remain standing when the big winds come again, and the robins will build new nests in the spring.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

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No, these aren’t Christmas trees

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I squinted to read the orange sign up ahead as Annie dragged me up 98th Street. Even with glasses, I can’t always make out the letters. Logging? Wait. Logging?

The road splits by the big house with the twin Blue Heeler dogs who always howl when we pass. The upper road, 98th Court, is graveled and wild. The lower road, dark and tree-shaded, is mostly paved. After a short straight stretch, it makes a 180-degree turn at the blue house where Annie and her siblings were born.

Up ahead, I saw massive trucks and bulldozers. I saw men with hardhats. I saw that the trees enclosed in that big curve in the road were gone or lying in the bushes waiting to be moved onto log trucks and taken away. Jagged stumps remained, some of them several feet in diameter. It smelled like Christmas. The road was several inches deep in mud and sawdust. In shock, I pulled out my phone and took pictures. I asked a flagger stopping traffic what was going on. Something about the airport approach was the most he could say. We live a half mile south of the Newport Municipal Airport. Apparently the trees were in the way.

Tree-lover that I am, I tried to wrap my head around the fact that we grow all kinds of plants and harvest them. Why not trees? These trees are spruce, hemlock and red alder. We cut down evergreens for Christmas trees, put them up in our houses, cover them with decorations and throw them out two weeks later. How is this any worse? People clear space in the forest to build their houses, their cities, and their airports. And yet, this felt so vicious, so lacking in respect for trees that had been in this forest much longer than we have.

Beyond the work site, the forest remains untouched, dark, cool and green. We walked a ways and gazed across Thiel Creek. So beautiful.

It was getting late, and Annie was starting to limp again. This year, she has begun battling dysplasia and arthritis. Her spirit is willing, but her hips disagree.

I saw a tall, slim woman coming toward us. A new neighbor who lives on 98th Street, she was coming to see the trees, too. She was nearly in tears. It’s like killing animals, she said. Trees are sentient beings. She told me about a meeting happening Monday at 1 p.m. at the airport. I said I’d be there.

We gathered around a table in the upstairs meeting room at the airport, neighbors who knew each other and neighbors who were meeting for the first time. We ranged in age from 60s to 90s. Emotions ran high, as they will when one’s property is threatened. I felt for Melissa Roman, the public works official trying to explain the situation. People got red-faced, standing and yelling. Their voices shook with barely contained tears. How could you do this? You’re ruining our neighborhood! How come nobody warned us? It’s all about money, isn’t it?

The poor woman was just trying to do her job. When you mix cities and nature, there’s always a conflict, she said, exhibiting great patience when I would have been in tears. She’s doing her best.

Here’s the deal. One of the airport’s two runways has been remodeled and the navigation system upgraded. Although earlier environmental studies didn’t show a problem, when planes actually got ready to start flying off that runway, the trees on the 3.14-acre section around which 98th Street curved blocked the navigation equipment. That land is private property, owned by a local developer. The city negotiated a plan in which Integrated Resource Management—foresters, not loggers, she stressed–would cut down the trees. Once the logging is finished, they will cover the remaining slash with plastic until spring, then burn it. After allowing time for the land to recover, they will plant new trees. They will also repair the road where their trucks have damaged it.

For those who mourn the death of the trees, at least they are going to a good cause. At the last minute, arrangements were made to send the logs to the Siletz River for a salmon habitat restoration project. Much better than the wood chipper.

I can live with all of this, but my house doesn’t overlook the destruction, nor do I have to drive through the trucks and mud every day to get to work. Plus, well, if you buy a house near an airport, you have to expect to make some concessions. This isn’t half as bad as what I have seen in San Jose and other big cities where entire neighborhoods were leveled.

However, just when people were starting to calm down, Roman dropped a bomb. In the years since the airport was built in 1944, our few blocks of houses have been exempted from the requirements of the “Maintenance Protection Zone” in which we sit. Not anymore. Within the next year, the city will be asking us for easements on our property to cut down trees that rise higher than they should be in the airport area. Although most of us live on county land, because the airport is in the city of Newport, they have power over the situation.

Ooh, that made people mad.

As long as I live on my land, nobody’s cutting down my trees, said one resident.

I’ve been taking care of those trees for over 40 years, said the very old man beside me.

Me, I thought, well my trees need some thinning out, and if the city will pay for it . . . What can I say? I love my trees, but I also worry about them falling on my house.

Throughout the two-hour meeting, I took notes because that’s what I always did as a reporter. I also tried to steer the conversation away from attacks on Roman, who was doing her best. I can see both sides. We need the airport; we love our trees. It’s a bitch being the person from city hall that everybody hates. The old trees were beautiful. The new trees will be, too.

About 10 years ago, I interviewed the previous airport manager for an article for Oregon Business Magazine. He talked about plans to cut down trees. I was shocked. I asked questions, I did research, and I mourned the passing of the forest. Back then, trees were cut, but they grew back, and these will, too. Meanwhile, Santa will find it much easier to get to our chimneys on Saturday night.

Merry Christmas, my friends!

P.S. You can read about the airport-forest situation in the last chapter of my book Shoes Full of Sand. The ebook is only $2.99, and the paperback is also reasonably priced.

P.P.S. This is my first attempt at a slide show here on WordPress. Let me know how it works for you.