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On trees and the illusion of permanence

On the 2013 summer solstice, a series of storms tore through my south Minneapolis neighborhood that altered its character forever. While no people were seriously hurt and most homes escaped major damage, one class of Minneapolis residents were quite literally uprooted: the trees.

Hundreds of trees toppled in the storms, causing nearly $18 million in damage and prompting both Gov. Mark Dayton and President Barack Obama to declare the storm-affected counties a federal disaster area.

After the storms, my kids and I traveled eastward from Chicago Avenue to the Mississippi River every day for summer camp, a once-boring trip that now featured fallen trees in alleys and back yards, on fences, atop smashed cars and sometimes blocking entire thoroughfares.

"Why did so many fall down?" my kids asked. "Why couldn't their roots protect them? Why?"

Discerning the answer to their literal "why" was: soft, rain-saturated soils and 80-mile-an-hour winds. Answering the metaphorical "why" was more difficult, leaving me with no option but the unsatisfying "because": because weather happens, because things change, because everything living will eventually die.

As we traveled the city, we saw leaves crushed to dust, branches sliced to bits and whole trunks shredded into mulch that would find a new purpose in a city resident's garden. As the trees changed, the neighborhoods changed. The urban canopy was riddled with gaping holes; formerly shaded streets felt hot, exposed and, worst of all, ugly. Damaged trunks not immediately hacked down were spray-painted with the ominous orange X that marked it for impending death.

When we talk of death, those times when such a thing cannot be avoided, we usually speak of metaphorical holes in our lives where our loved ones once dwelled. I couldn't help thinking of the gap left behind on my street and in my heart when my friend and neighbor Pam Taylor died last January. In the days following her death, I caught myself staring at her house on the corner, continually surprised that its foundation hadn't literally cracked open after she drew her last breath in what was once its dining room.

I could pretend, in my worst days, that Pam was merely behind schedule and was seconds away from opening the kitchen window to ask me if I'd seen the school bus cresting the top of the hill. All of that pretending failed to make her materialize; on my very worst days, I blamed myself for not trying harder.

We count on our neighborhoods to remain fixed in time, which explains why so many feel they can "go back home again." In fact, several adults on our block are living in their childhood homes, and to them the trees are perfect markers of the passage of time.

Post-storm, however, they are a reminder to us all of the unpredictability of disaster and how deeply we believe in the illusion of our permanence.

As my kids and I drove between home and camp, in humid air that smelled of damp wood chips, we noted that the sky seemed hotter, but it also felt brighter. Light appeared in places where it hadn't been before.

"Maybe they'll plant apple trees instead," my daughter said happily. "I would love a whole city of Zestars and Honeycrisps."

As her branches spread, perhaps taking her far from her Minneapolis roots, I hope she maintains ability to connect with the sweetness, not the bitterness, of transitional moments like these. She misses Pam as much as I do.

"Apple trees are a great idea," I told her.

She and I are working out our pitch to the Park Board.

Shannon Drury is a self-described radical housewife. She lives in Minneapolis.


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