City Wilds

The end comes on the morning and afternoon of Oct. 21. All three mature spruce trees in my yard are de-limbed, cut down, and hauled off by a local “tree services” crew. It’s just another day on the job for them and workers employed by other Anchorage companies, kept busy this fall with the felling of big old spruces that have been growing in my Turnagain neighborhood for a half-century or more—some considerably more—with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of them now dead and dying.

I’ve wondered how many of the trees “took root” in 1950, the year I was born. After its cutting, the exposed rings of one front-yard spruce show the tree to be well over 70 years old.

While the crew goes about its task in a matter-of-fact way, sadness flows through me as I watch the yard become a much emptier place.

The neighborhood songbirds too seem to notice. Their relationship with the trees has been much closer than mine; the spruces have provided shelter and food (in the form of seeds and insects) and perhaps other forms of sustenance. Chickadees and nuthatches fly around the yard, talking among themselves while the chainsaw roars.

It’s hardest to watch the two green trees get taken down, though the evidence clearly suggests they’d been mortally wounded by swarming spruce bark beetles this past summer. Already, they’re losing lots of needles.

An employee with the tree-services company wrapped red flagging around all three trees in late summer, marking them for removal. Later, at my request—and with my landlord’s permission—an integrated pest management specialist with the cooperative extension service, Jessie Moan, did a “house call” and confirmed what even I had to reluctantly admit was obvious: all three trees showed signs they’d been entered by dozens of beetles, more than enough to kill the old spruces. They were doomed.

To my landlord, it made economic sense to have all three taken out this fall, a package deal. But it also makes sense if we don’t want the slowly dying trees to serve as hosts for another release of beetle adults next year.

Before the crew arrived, I said my last “goodbyes” and expressed a final appreciation to each of the trees. That may sound silly to some, but in my thirteen years here they’ve enriched my life.

Once the cutting begins, the sadness comes in waves and there are moments I allow myself some tears. That’s what happens when from my doorway I see two neighbors, Mike and Jan, watching from down the street. They know how hard this is for me and maybe that gives me permission to quietly weep when we wave to each other, an acknowledgement of what’s happening.

It’s only when the cutter reaches high in the mostly de-limbed trees that I notice the smell of sap. Is that because more of the life-giving fluid remains up high or simply that it took this long for the smell to reach me? Or for me to notice? The smell is strong, fragrant.

As one tree’s green, needled branches are cut from the trunk and then shredded, I wonder how the tree experiences the losses. It seems the spruce must in some way be conscious of what’s happening. I also get to thinking about the “life force” of the tree and its parts. Does some bit of life force remain in the branches and needles, once separated from the tree and then shredded into fine bits? How long does the tree’s life force remain once it is cut into pieces?

A day or two later, while I’m standing in the empty yard and still mourning this new hole in my life, a couple of other neighbors walk by, Margaret Timmerman and Nick Parker. We talk about the loss of spruce trees, not only in my yard, but throughout the neighborhood and beyond, and the sadness that rises from these losses. Margaret also tells me she has two small potted spruce trees that she’s been waiting to someday transplant; they’re white spruces, like the ones cut down. Would I like to plant them in the yard? If so, she’d help with the planting.

Yeah, that sounds great, I tell her. I’ve intended to wait until spring before doing any planting, but Margaret says this warm fall is also a good time, with the ground still soft and temperatures mild. So after my landlord, Alex, gives his approval, we agree to do it.

Margaret is the perfect person to lead this planting project, both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. She’s had great success growing vegetables in her yard and greenhouse and created bird-friendly habitat by planting a variety of trees and shrubs in her yard. Those homegrown achievements are complemented by the work she once did for the municipality; for many years she coordinated the planting of trees throughout much of the Anchorage Bowl.

On the first Saturday in November, we transfer the small spruces from their pots to my yard. One is 21 inches high, the other just over two feet tall. With Margaret’s guidance I dig holes appropriately large and deep for their young roots and then water them generously. I’ll continue watering them regularly while they adapt to their new surroundings. As Margaret explains, “You have to help them along. Imagine them thinking, ‘Ohmygod, what just happened to me?’”

We place the young trees in spots where they’ll have plenty of room to grow and thrive and still leave space for future landscaping projects. Even as I plant the trees, I sense the joy and hope of new beginnings. Though the trees are small, already the yard seems much less empty.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at

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