Bill the Tree Man and the Cypresses
Bill the Tree Man is a little larger than life, and the nineteen cypress trees which surround my house are much larger than you want old trees to be. Bill played in these cypress trees when he and they were much younger, and once or twice a year now he comes to address a cypress emergency.
This past Christmas, as he was dealing with yet another tree mishap, Bill told a story of pilfering lumber to build a tree house in that very same cypress, and then of having the structure collapse on him after the contractor said he had to dismantle his shack and return the two-by-fours. (Bill began the demolition from the bottom instead of the top.)
This experience has not made him cautious. He still will shimmy up an eighty-foot tree with nothing but a rope and a chainsaw, and in fact did so a week after the Christmas episode when he noticed another enormous broken branch hanging over our house like the sword of Damocles. “I believe you are in harm’s way,” he said calmly. Since Bill is not an alarmist, we prayed for no wind until he reappeared with his rope and saw.
Others have worked on the trees when Bill wasn’t available. He is an actor and for a while divided his time between the Coastside and Hollywood. One tree man fell and broke his jaw. Another used a cherry-picker. Yet another shook his head at a threatening branch sixty feet up. “No,” he said, and walked away.
Bill fixed a chain around a similar branch which refused to yield to the chainsaw. He calculated just where it would fall in order to miss the fence and the other trees, he hitched the chain to his truck and inched the truck up the driveway with the engine laboring. The ground shook when the branch landed. I was too frightened to watch. When I came outside, Bill was discussing eating poison oak with a passer-by. It gives you immunity, he said. “Doesn’t it taste bad?” the other man asked. “Nah,” Bill replied. “I’ve kissed women who tasted worse than that.”
We have had at least three major repairs to the house because of heavy branches falling in high wind. When Chuck lived next door, he said a limb outside fell on his television cable and pulled the set right off the table. We have had nervous telephone calls from all the neighbors because of the trees; the last time, Bill walked over and reassured the neighbor that once a limb hit the ground, it wasn’t going to fall any farther.
Cupressus macrocarpa, the Monterey cypress, and in some cases the hybrid cupressocyparis, were sometimes planted as a quick-growing hedge. The trees are “picturesque in age, especially in windy coastal conditions,” according to the Sunset Western Garden Book. The hybrid can grow to 20 feet high in five years, usually reaches 60 or 70 feet tall, and “will quickly get away from you without regular maintenence.” “Takes strong wind,” the book adds.
The cypresses offer gifts as well as sudden danger. At Christmas, enough green twigs with festive round cones will blow down that we can make wreaths and garlands. A raucous family of ravens lives in the trees, so fierce that they repel even hawks. At night, there is an owl who calls balefully from one tree near the road. Once three baby raccoons climbed sixty feet up a cypress and couldn’t figure out how to get down. Occasionally we see a squirrel, though I’m afraid they are rather low on the food chain.
Our stacked log fences, five feet high, are made from dead cypresses which had to be cut down. The same logs feed the wood stove, and chipped wood from fallen branches goes back into the garden for mulch.
In Greek mythology, Kyparissos or Cyparissos, for whom the cypress tree was named, was the grandson of Hercules and a protege of the god Apollo and of Zephiros, god of the winds. His favorite companion was a mighty stag, but he accidentally killed the deer with his spear. He asked the heavens for a favor, that his tears would roll down eternally, and so the gods turned him into a cypress tree.
As for the Monterey cypress and the tears of Kyparissos, it is true that the trees, despite their happy, hungry and sometimes raucous occupants, shed resinous tears all the time. The gummy tears stick to the cars and harden into clear patches impossible to remove. The cat comes in smelling like Christmas trees, with sticky patches of cypress resin gumming up her fur.
I found a picture of the cypresses made in about 1949, and they appear to be small bushes. Now they are craggy giants which moan, groan and crackle when the wind blows. Bill the Tree Man says that the trees are getting toward the end of their life, but despite all the tears and the trouble, I’ll be sad to see them go.