Updated: The Day the Trees Came Down

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Trees define a neighborhood: They serve as signposts and become so familiar to us over the course of many years. What are we to think when they die and are chopped down?

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Andrew Cohen

(See Update Below)

They were lovely all year long because in their branches our neighborhood owls and hawks would rest before moving on to prey. But their tallest branches were essential in the summer, towering over our street, because they signaled which way the wind was blowing when the thunderstorms came. If the wind were coming out of the Northwest, it was between five and ten seconds from when the tops of those trees bent to the moment I would feel the same gust on my porch, catty-corner to the property upon which the trees rested.

Those few seconds -- when you know you are about to be hit by a big gust of wind and then it comes right along and hits you -- were thrilling, impeccable moments of life. And for nearly eight years, it was like this. No matter what my mood, no matter what the story, I could always count on them to be there. They were tall cottonwoods, at least 50 feet high, part of a small stand, and on Saturday some men in a truck came and chopped them down. The trees were long dead, I should add, and surely a potential liability as branches and bark started to fall. And they weren't mine, I also should add, so it's none of my business.

But it was so sad all day to hear the chainsaws whining, for hours, through the wood. I heard the first one topple, crrraaaaaackkk!, and I saw the second one come down. And then there was just the matter of cutting up the logs. I knew the day was coming, especially after the last leaves fell seasons ago -- but it was only later in the day, when only the stubs of their trunks were left standing and the men who had cut them were gone, that I thought to write about what had happened. I feel terrible now about waiting so long to shoot the scene. And more terrible still for not having photographed them when they still bloomed.

Here are a few of the photographs I took as the sun began to set, for the first time ever, on the wood at the core of those trees. You can see that they were old. You can see that they were already dead. But I hope you can picture in your mind's eye what they looked like in their prime- when their leaves shimmered in the light of dawn. Now the light on our street will change. Now the shadows will fall differently across the grass. Now they'll be less nature in the foreground when the dark clouds roll past. It's weird to witness the end of an old tree when you consider how much an old tree witnesses over the course of its long lifetime.

(Editor's note: How old were these trees? Maybe someone out there can take an educated guess from the photos?)

The good news is that there are still two big trees across the street, one a cottonwood and the other a maple. I will still get some sense of which way the wind is blowing. And I know that my neighbors, who are also my friends, will take care of the survivors. In the meantime, I took from the curb a small portion of the trunk, to keep on my porch, as a reminder of what once was. I'm going to donate two trees this week, somewhere, to enchant someone else's life the way these trees enriched mine. And I am going to pray every single time I go back out on that porch that the hawks and the owls come back home one day to what's left.

Update: Although there were many qualified organizations and programs, including the good folks at the Arbor Day Foundation, I selected the group "American Forests" for my tree donation. Here is a link to their site. As my editor Jennie Rothenberg quickly noted, the organization shares its name with a brilliant piece of writing by John Muir in The Atlantic in 1897. Here is the link to that timeless work, called The American Forests.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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