Herb is a neighbor. An old man now. Some years ago, he was an Eagle Scout, or whatever a high rank is in the Boy Scouts. He went a long way in that game. He was self-disciplined, well-behaved, and goal- driven, I guess. You can see those same traits in his acorn-gathering technique.
At this point, he’s meandering on to somewhere in his seventies, I think.
Almost ten years ago, my son went door-to-door in our neighborhood to offer lawn-mowing services in the summer and snow shoveling when the snow came. Herb took him up on it and our family became neighborly acquaintances with him.
Herb was old then, and he’s older now. He was stodgy and moralistic then. Now he’s even more so, but the rigidity and stodginess is becoming a murky soup of foggy headedness.
Herb’s house is around the corner from ours on a side-road where every house looks the same except for a different light fixture, a garage that exits the side of the house instead of the front, or a sheltering roof over the front door.
Mid-November, on my daily walk, I passed Herb’s, house. The wind was beginning to mention winter. It was cold enough to wear a coat and hat. That day, I saw Herb on all fours on his lawn, not far from the trunk of the lawn’s single, tall, and verdant-topped oak; one of the gems of his street. He was maneuvering around in a three-sided patch of clear, leafless lawn, doing some kind of work it seemed. Apart from the area where he was on hands and knees, the rest of his lawn was smattered with crispy fallen leaves.
It was easy to see the grass had been recently raked but in the current raining-down-of-leaves phase of Autumn, it was an uphill battle.
Until Fall had come to a full stop, at our house we abided by the tradition that it was pointless to rake. And once all the leaves had fallen, we also felt it was pointless to rake as there were simply too many leaves.
Herb’s philosophy, though, was diametrically opposed to ours. He was determined to keep his lawn spotless and leaf-free. His current, triangular work space was impeccable. Bold green. And now being closer, I saw a bucket near him into which, one by one, he picked acorns from the ground and pitched them.
“That’s a big job,” I said in what I hoped was a neighborly tone. I meant to commiserate. To bond with him by empathizing with what seemed like an endless task. Then, like a fire ladder extending itself segment by segment, Herb sat back on his heels, straightened his back, pushed off the ground with a hand, and rose to stand.
“Yeah,” he agreed, They’ll all be gone soon. No more. All gone. Forever.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking of the coming bare-treed winter. He leaned back a little and turned his face skyward to the lush green canopy atop the long tree trunk.
“Yep. No more acorns. Soon they’ll be all gone.” I figured he meant that it was autumn and he’d soon be caged up inside for the winter to do indoor tasks until it was warm enough to come out and continue on with his tedious, never-ending yard work. I felt my attempt at commiseration a failure and began to question Herb’s cogency.
My feeling is, who the fuck am I to tell anyone what to do? I’m a “naturalist” of sorts in that my philosophy is “leave it alone.” When there’s a question about whether to cut it or leave it, you’ll find me in the “leave it” camp. Ask me whether you ought to change your hair color? I’ll go with “leave it alone.” I have confidence that Nature has a plan of some kind and the less we mess with it, the better off we’ll be in the short and long run.
I continued on my walk that day, leaving Herb to ruminate further about his acorns.
A few days after the “All gone” conversation, I passed his house again on my daily walk. This time, my very observant son was accompanying me.
The lawn was now completely green. Not a single brown, red, or yellow leaf marred his precious turf. My son was staring up. I followed his line of vision into the sky and saw the luscious, bushy green top of the oak. Herb stood on the lawn near the tree. He was looking up as well.
“That’s gonna be gone,” Herb said, “Tonight.” It was a statement. Firm. Knowing. He now turned to consider us. “Gone,” he muttered. He was calm. Resigned. He was getting his way. He was going to triumph over incorrigible, messy Nature. The majestic crown of the oak would be no more. And as a result, the leaves and most importantly, the maddening acorns, would be banished as well.
A day or two later, I set out on a chilly day to take my walk. Alone this time. As I rounded the corner onto the side road where Herb lived, I lifted my eyes from their tendency to glue themselves to the ground just in front of my steps. My vision stuttered and stuck.
Beheaded. The oak tree. Herb’s statuesque oak tree was headless. Its largest branches reached up, but were all of them chopped off mid-forearm. There was nothing but heavy, abrupt branches straining for the sky. Not a leaf, no small branches, nothing to protect the towering creature from the elements. It was bare and headless. Exposed and dying.
A crazy fuckin’ Schenectadian nature-hating boy scout weirdo had gone batshit on a harmless, photo-synthesizing, shade-giving, oxygen-promoting, visually-refreshing, squirrel-and-other-rodent-feeding tree. A thriving beauty of a tree at that. A tree who’d done no harm. Had, in fact, done the reverse of harm. Had done what it was supposed to do: grown up to the sun, offered leaves for shade, and seeds to feed little animals, and grow more of its own kind. And in return, it had been decapitated and banished, unable to work or live a normal life forever more.