New York Times
MAGAZINE DESK

LIVES; A Tree Grows in Oakland

By BRIGGS NISBET (NYT) 939 words
Published: May 16, 2004

Gardeners faced with a new patch of earth imagine that it can be made or remade into paradise. For me, paradise was a landscape on the wild side, utterly my own. A mini-meadow and secret grove, vines that wandered through dilapidated fences, a pond for salamanders. I had always been partial to natural gardens. They were the abandoned orchards and grassy hillsides, oak groves and hidden creeks of my childhood wanderings. I wanted those places back.

I had my idea of paradise but I couldn't quite make it work. The garden books stacked on my floor were of little help. The English cottage garden was making a comeback in all its Victorian picturesqueness. Makers of garden taste promoted pastel palettes and expensive masonry. They all seemed to own estates. Less received notions also got garden books -- gardens that needed no water (ha!), all-native plant gardens native to other places, garden ''rooms'' for the restless and land-rich and the double-dug French intensive vegetable garden for the self-flagellating.

Even so, I was taken in by the photographs of gardens entirely inappropriate to my situation and seduced by plant catalogs a friend refers to as rose porn. At the garden center, I bought truckloads of pretty plants that promptly died when I planted them. Then there was the dirt that couldn't be dug, and uncooperative weather (of course). Not to mention acts of God.

After years of living in apartments, I found the attraction of having a backyard in Oakland was its relative privacy. Relative, because the fence is see-through chain link and the neighbors are six feet away. One Saturday morning, I woke to the sound of hammering and the whine of a Skilsaw. The neighbors were busily erecting a platform-with-outdoor-kitchen that loomed over my garden. When they were finished, I could read the label on their propane grill and share in the family chitchat.

Then the raccoons came, along with the neighborhood cats, possums and legions of squirrels. The raccoons bathed in my water-barrel pond, chewing on the pump hose and dropping snail leftovers at the bottom. Possums dug up the pea plants and got stuck in the vegetable netting. The squirrels burying their acorns seemed harmless enough, until I found trees sprouting in the herb pots. And in places that I didn't discover until too late and didn't have the gumption to pull out. At least they were native oak trees.

When I invited the birds into my garden with a capacious feeder out of reach of the cats, I never imagined I was setting them up for a slaughter. But that is what I found one morning -- a ferocious-eyed hawk under the feeder, expertly gutting a hapless mourning dove. The bird of prey left nothing but some feathers and a small pile of half-digested millet seed. My garden was turning out to be wild, in disturbing ways.

All the schemes I had invented -- gravel paths bordering wild grasses, the hop-vine gazebo, a wisteria-shrouded garage-turned-greenhouse -- vanished before the realities of small paychecks, relationship crises and the landlord's fix-it men.

The tree guy was at least sympathetic before he chain-sawed the plum tree. It wasn't his idea to remove a perfectly healthy tree from my front yard. It was the city's. Apparently, Oakland has departments for this kind of thing. First, there was the surreptitious casing of the yard by a department employee, followed by an official letter and then the fine for noncompliance. For fire safety, the ordinance outlaws the existence of any tree branch within 10 feet of my roofline. If followed to the letter, not only every tree on my lot but also half the trees on my side of the neighbors' lots would have to go. This in a city named for its (dwindling) trees.

I'm accepting the place my garden has become, even as I gaze on a magnificent testament to my loss of control of it. The scarlet oak outside my window has climbed past the roofline. Now nearly 30 feet high and about five years old, it is a commanding presence. Its branches reach across the yard, bringing shade and layers of brilliant emerald to the garden. The tree is gradually altering the space in ways I couldn't have imagined. It is not native to this landscape. And I didn't plant it.

It appeared one spring among the ferns and lilies by the kitchen wall, a three-foot stalk with huge leaves. I didn't know what it was but was curious to know what it would become. So I left it. By the next spring it was over my head. I couldn't bring myself to cut it down. I searched in tree books to find its name and its heritage -- scarlet oak, native to the eastern woodlands of North America. I searched the streets of my neighborhood to find where it had come from. By a bus stop a few blocks from my house, two scarlet oaks grow, more pruned, less flourishing than mine. Their offspring must have been delivered by a bird to my encouraging soil. And I can live with that.

Drawing (Drawing by Bob Hambly)