It started out to be a quiet Monday morning with sunshine, a bright blue sky, and the promise of 70 degrees. I was up early, reading in my sun room, stopping occasionally to look at the downed lilac tree that had keeled over from its roots during a wind storm a few days ago. I happened to witness its dramatic fall. When I went out to inspect, the cats followed. They marked the tree and proprietorially stationed themselves around it. It had indeed taken its curtain call. But a group of lilacs was still standing, disoriented without their senior member. One tree in particular seemed to be attempting to breed with the mock orange to the east. Several others looked like they were about to hop the twig.
I live across the alley from celebrity gardeners, John and Cass Turnbull. (http://www.plantamnesty.org/ABOUT/about.aspx) That evening I asked John to take a squint at the tree.
“That’s what lilacs do,” he said. “It’s an old tree. What are you going to do with it?”
“Gwen wants to come over with her chain saw.”
That would be Gwen, my neighbor who knows something about just about everything.
John grinned. Everyone in these parts knows Gwen.
“Well if she needs some help, let me know.”
Gwen was in my yard the next morning inspecting (but not marking) the tree when John was preparing his gardening truck to leave for points east. He leaned against the fence.
“I’ll cut it up for you this afternoon,” he told us expansively. “It’s Man’s work.” I guess you could say that, in a sense, he marked it.
The air around Gwen began to displace in waves. I could sense it although there was nothing in her Welsh face or Wisconsin demeanor to foreshadow the fury of the next hour. I went into the house to rescue a whistling teakettle. Five minutes later I heard snapping and whisking and cursing. Actually I didn’t hear the cursing. Curse words were understood to be trapped in the waves of indignation around Gwen. I looked out the window while wrapping an ace bandage around my foot since I seemed to have pulled something near the toe. There was Gwen with a pruning saw and a long-handled pruner. She was energetically loping off branches and pulling them through the weave of the lilac and the mock orange.
I crammed the sprained foot into a shoe and hopped out the sun room door. “Gwen, you’re cutting the mock orange,” I said.
“Can’t be helped. It’s in the way.”
I have to say I was little shocked at her tone. I looked around the yard. Branches and bunches were growing in heaps.
“What can I do?” I asked. I didn’t want to do anything. I had this broken foot, you see.
“This is the first branch that needs to go.” She patted one. “They all look to be dying but this is the most unstable. Here why don’t you start sawing? NO! Not that side! It’ll come loose and snap you right in the head.” (She didn’t add, “you big fool.”)
“Can’t we just . . .”
“No. Here, give me that. Now pull it this way while I saw. Fulcrum and pivots, fulcrum and pivots. Make your life easier.” I swear that is exactly what she said because as soon as we got that branch down I hopped into the house and wrote it down. Then later in the day I looked up the word fulcrum.
“Girls have to think,” she said. “Boys muscle.”
“Can I take pictures of this?”
“No,” she said. “No photos.” Again: tone.
“Can I blog about it?” Like I have ever asked her permission before and how many of you have heard me mention my neighbor Gwen who knows something about just about everything?
“Yes you can blog about your neighbor who will not be photographed.”
We worked at the unstable trees branch by branch. Gwen analyzed their positions and size, and barked out orders while I whined about my foot, the heat, and how I had to be someplace at noon.
I left for my Yoga for Over 50’s class. I would have skipped it altogether but I missed it last week because Putzer the attorney was in town and I thought it was more important to take her to Archee McPhees. I got back from class to find Gwen hauling a jaw horse through my front gate.
“If you will just move those branches off the tree on the ground, I can start cutting,” she said. “I’ll need an electric cord.”
For the next hour she cut up the old spent lilac, figuring out the best ways to prop up each hunk of wood so as to cut it safely. I approximated a continuation of all the forward bends I had done in yoga and picked up the pieces of wood.
“John really got under your skin, didn’t he?” I asked when I handed her a double Jameson in the cool of the house.
“He probably wasn’t going to do it anyway,” she said. “He was posturing.”
Here was one of the definitions for fulcrum: “one that supplies capability for action.” That would be Gwen. Makes my life easier.