We moved into our house in Venice almost 18 years ago this week. We’d been house hunting for months and had despaired of finding anything on the Westside for less than a bazillion dollars. When we drove up to our future home, my wife, who was pregnant at the time, was too tired to get out of the car — she’d given up. The house was locked, anyway. I peeked over the fence into the backyard, came back to the car and said, “This is it.”
I saw a giant spreading ficus, a hedge of massive Eugenia and bougainvillea that looked like it could take over Mykonos. The backyard wasn’t huge by Valley standards, but for the Westside it was Yellowstone.
We did worry about the neighborhood. This was Venice in the early ’90s. To calm our fears, I asked a patrol officer whether Venice was safe.
“It depends,” he said.
“On the neighborhood?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “on the house.”
He might have been talking about our home. A SWAT team had raided the charming Tudor-style cottage just weeks before we moved in. The people running a prostitution business there had been moved out. Those glorious, unruly trees and hedges I fell in love with at first sight? They hid stashes of drugs, alcohol and porn from prying eyes.
We cleaned the place up. In the barren patches I planted new trees: fig, orange, lemon. My wife, the rabbi, suggested we go for as many of the seven biblical species as possible. In a showcase spot just behind our children’s bedrooms, I planted a pomegranate sapling.
A tree gets under your skin the way a pet can. They grow, they change, they give — all without moving. I’ve watched the pomegranate reach and spread. I’ve tracked the seasons in Los Angeles — not an easy thing to do — by looking out the window to see when it leafed out, when it budded, fruited, shed its leaves, lay barren. I knew from the exact shade of scarlet fruit how long my wife had before she needed to finish her High Holy Days sermons. And I looked forward every Sukkot to harvesting the softball-sized grenades, pressing them and serving fresh juice — yes, often mixed with vodka — in our sukkah. That sapling now reaches to the roof of our house, its trunk is as thick as a runner’s calf, and its branches tangle from side to side.
And last week, a contractor told us we have to cut it down.
We’ve been dealing with mold in our house — they don’t tell you mold is far more common in Venice than crime. The abatement specialist said I planted the tree too close to the house, and even though it no longer needs watering, foliage next to homes, he said, is a mold magnet.
Silly me — it was just a stick when I dug a hole a couple of feet from the wall. Who knew trees really would grow? Who knew time really would march on?
All week my mind has drifted off the big, important news of the world — Kerry’s Mideast peace! Climate change! Iran! — and back to that tree. It is leafless right now, naked, vulnerable. But I know its cycle. I know how the warm weather is teasing its tiny buds, tempting them to sprout. Soon it will be covered in pale green-yellow leaves, the most beautiful spring clothes imaginable. How can I destroy it?
I have this image of One Me chaining myself to the pomegranate trunk, as the Other Me comes at it with my saw. Silly. In the grand scheme of things, the loss is barely a loss. About 30 million American trees just got cut down, dolled up for Christmas, then hauled out to dumpsters — and life goes on.
Yet I happen to belong to a religion that in some deep, almost Druidic way, prefers living trees. In the coming week, we will celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the holiday that marks the New Year of the Trees. In the depths of winter, when even the Holy Land can see dumps of snow, the ancient Jews sensed the buds trying to sprout, the spring about to come, the fruit yet to grow. I suppose some of their blood still runs in me.
“When it is springtime,” Alain du Botton writes in “Religion for Atheists,” “Judaism takes hold of us with a force that Wordsworth or Keats never employed: at the first blossoming of trees, the faithful are told to gather outdoors with a rabbi and together recite the ‘Birkat Ilanot,’ a ritual prayer from the Talmud honoring the hand that made the blossom.”
So I don’t know what to do. How strange that 18 years after we moved in, just as our youngest child prepares to move out, we must cut the tree I planted when she was born? How could I, on Tu b’Shevat of all holidays, kill my favorite tree?
“Blessed are You,” goes the Tu b’Shevat blessing, “Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who did not leave a single thing lacking in His world, Filling it with the finest creatures and trees, So as to give pleasure to all of mankind.”
And with that pleasure, inevitably, heartache, too.
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