What a difference even a couple of days makes. Yesterday afternoon when I walked the dog into town, I was surprised to see blue sky where there used to be birches: construction crews had leveled the line of trees fringing a local segment of bike path. In the place of willowy birch saplings they’d erected spans of orange construction webbing: do not disturb this work in progress! Work crews had been so thorough in their post-destruction clean-up that I could find no trace of the trees they’d felled, only muddy tracks where earth movers had moved.
These days it seems the town of Keene has been overrun by construction workers. Water Street has been stripped of pavement, orange signs re-directing traffic around its rutted and dust-billowing surface as crews unearth and replace segments of sewer line. Much of the weedy overgrowth near my favorite decrepit factory has been cleared and mulched: what used to be my favorite shortcut into town is now a resting place for bulldozers and piles of concrete piping. In Central Square, blue scaffolding and yellow “Caution” tape bedeck the facade of the Colony Block building: billboard-sized signs assure passersby that this ornate 1865 building is undergoing a face-lift that will restore its architectural charm without modifying its historical authenticity. And even downtown’s landmark church steeple–the white spire topping the Congregational Church at the apex of Central Square–is going through changes of its own, the sidewalks below being littered with paint chips as workers stride narrow boards to scrape layers of old dingy paint, time’s own sediment, from the church summit.
Initially when I saw sky where there had been birch trees, my heart sank. These were, after all, the very trees where so many birders had seen elusive hoary redpolls last winter: these were storied trees, a stretch of greenery with a history. Whatever blueprinted plan that decreed their demise was surely misguided: where would each of the trio of mimics (mockingbird, catbird, and brown thrasher) I’d seen in this single span of bike path find similar shelter? Clearly this act of clearing was diabolic: what sort of human progress could justify the felling of trees who’d done no one any discernable harm?
Yet. These trees were young and scrubby, their trunks only several inches in diameter. There are plenty of other birches for redpolls to ride as supple branches bounce in winter wind: even that favorite factory of mine, as toxic a site as Keene has harbored, has a supple birch sprouting from its basement. Although the word “birch” evokes nostalgic notions of pristine New England landscapes, the imagined site of Robert Frost poems, the birches here in residential Keene are colonizing trees, rushing in to reclaim disturbed soil along overlooked edges. Fast-growing, birches are short-lived: they rush to reclaim land that other trees (or buildings, parking lots, or sewer lines) will inherit. In a word, birches fear not to die, for that’s the direction their sprouting is perpetually headed.
Although I’m personally resistant to change, setting down deep, long-lived roots like a stubborn oak that refuses to bend, even I have to admit that there can be something constructive in destruction. This past week as I faced a different sort of remodeling–a change that I hope will reveal the hidden strengths of my personal architecture while stripping away the dingy accumulation of time and long-harbored resentments–I realized that change is only another word for growth. Left unchecked, those birches would ultimately be shaded and replaced by larger, more long-lived trees; even those trees would be ultimately felled by time and decay. Nature herself is a multifaceted, oft-changing practitioner of her own brand of plastic surgery: today a birch tree, tomorrow an oak. In time winding rivers will straighten, fields will revert to forest, and even factories, bricked against time, will crumble and decay, their skeletal piping re-fleshed in greenery.
In a recent email, a friend quoted none other than Suzuki Roshi, who when asked to define Buddhism succinctly replied “Everything changes.” Change is the rule of the jungle; it applies as well to the streets and bikepaths of Keene. Sometimes to remove the layers of old dingy paint that have stifled your soul, you have to withstand some not-so-pleasant scraping; sometimes to ease a short-lived birch into its next incarnation, you need to move the earth herself. As far as I know, leaves don’t weep when they fall in the autumn: every year, billions of leaves sprout and grow only to mature, fall, then decay. What blissful freedom is there in having the courage simply to fall when the time is right: what buoyant billow of hope cushions even a birch’s fall?