Dead Trees

Tony the Tree Man was an East County Character (there were a lot of those in the remote wilds of San Diego County maybe I was one…). Tony was the best (and only) local tree-trimming guy with a boom truck.

Tony the Tree Man was a local legend.

Years of drought had led to major infestations of bark beetles that killed the indigenous oak trees. Old trees were particularly susceptible and some of them were very tall.

I had a 100 foot dead black oak in front of my Little Stone House in Descanso and as time wore on it was clear to me that sucker could easily fall on my house in one of the 70 mph windstorms that came with Santa Anas. One day I noticed a business card stuck in the chain link fence.

“Tony the Tree Man for all your tree needs. Tell your wife. I’ll trim her bush.”

Yes. How could I NOT hire a weirdo like that? I took the card and called him. Tony showed up to meet me and bid the job. He handed me a magnet for the fridge with the same offer to trim the bush. He looked at the job and said, “I dunno. $300?” An incredibly low bid, but there was more. “And I keep the wood?” Ah. That’s where the big money was in East San Diego County. In firewood. I paid upwards of $500/cord and burned through two cords every winter. Sometimes three if winter were long and spring was wet. There were easily five cords in that tree.

“$200,” I said. $300 was actually fine, but I had to demonstrate that I knew how to live there.



“Have you seen my scar. I was in a MF of a motorcycle accident,” and he proceeded to show me a grizzly scar that went from his groin to his ankle. I’d been warned so I just shuddered respectfully and ignored the divestiture of clothing that accompanied the revelation of the scar. “Amazing you lived,” I said.

“True that,” said Tony reassembling his clothing.

He showed up a few days later with a decrepit boom truck and his assistant. A deaf Mexican.

Since Tony’s language was liberally sprinkled with non-obscenities it was probably for the best that his assistant couldn’t hear him, still, I’d think a tree man would need an assistant who could hear, “HELP!” Maybe the Mexican could hear a little something, but the thing is, the Mexican spoke no English and Tony spoke no Spanish.

They leveled the boom truck. Tony was lifted to the top of the tree. He climbed out of the basket and onto the tree, strapping himself around the tree with a leather lineman’s belt. The tricky part was getting the top cut off so he could safely just cut down the tree.

The boom truck roared. The basket he had abandoned was Tony’s only safety “net.” He hoisted his immense chain saw and started to work on the skinny branches surrounding the top, then, he started in earnest on the trunk — above his head. It was so reckless, so scary that it was hard to watch, but the Mexican had to. At one point he whispered “cojones,” and for a split second I felt I was in a Hemingway novel, but that didn’t last long. Tony sawed and cursed and sawed and cursed, and I went inside. If he were going to split his head open and die, I didn’t want to witness it.

Then came a moment when the chain saw stopped. There was a second or two of silence. “Oh my god,” I thought, my heart pounding. Then…

“We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the world”

I went out and Tony stood on a couple branches, leaning backward on his lineman’s belt, his massive chainsaw thrust into the air, singing with all his heart.

Featured image: My little stone house in Descanso, CA. There’s a similar tree in the background. The dog in front is Lupo. 2004 ❤

Once Upon a Time

I got to live in my dream house for 11 years. It was definitely a dream house. You know how dreams don’t make sense and there are all kinds of scary turns and the possibility of falling? The eleven years I lived in this house were just like that.

It was built as a summer cabin in 1928 (the same year as my REAL house, now). The people who built it were really from Europe and they built a dozen or so stone houses like this one as part of a summer home project. My little town was known for them. I was blissfully happy there for a year. Then stuff started happening, but the house didn’t do it. The house was a haven.

It was originally one room — one beautiful room. A kitchen and indoor toilet were added on and then two bedrooms and a real bathroom in the 90s. It was heated by a wood stove in the old part and a propane furnace in the new part that I only used one year. Propane is expensive.

I loved it, though. It was more than a cottage to me, it was a kind of friend and it helped me come back to Colorado.

Poetry or Just Another Pop Song by Freddy Mercury????

“Martha, how can you tell if a song is a poem?”

“I just take away the music and read the words. If it works without the music, then, maybe it’s a poem.”

It was an ESL class on literature. My students were enthusiastic and participative. It was a great class. Believe me. We’d just played “We Will Rock You.”

“Is that poetry, Martha?”

“Uh, try my stragedy.”

“Martha, you read it. You know how poetry in English is supposed to be,” said a Japanese girl.

“All right.” I picked up the liner from the cassette and started to read in a serious, poetical voice, ‘We will, we will, rock you. We WILL, we WILL rock YOU. We will, we will, ROCK you!”

“NOT poetry, definitely NOT poetry,” said a Swiss guy. “It’s a good song, though.”

“Music makes a difference.”

But it isn’t all about the music and the lyrics. Sometimes it’s the setting.

Years later, Tony the Treeman was up at the top of a very tall dead (and possibly rotten) oak tree in my front yard. Tony the Treeman was a complete nutcase, but lovable. His Mexican friend and assistant (who spoke no English as Tony spoke no Spanish) was running the boom truck that had carried Tony and his chainsaw up to the top.

So the chainsaw chainsawed and inside the house I worried. Getting the top down was always the hardest and scariest part of a tree job, and I LIKED Tony, even though he HAD shown me the scar from his motorcycle accident, a gruesome, knotted crevasse of pink that ran from his knee to his groin (an image I’ll never forget).

Then, the chainsaw stopped. The boom truck engine was silent. I was in a sudden cold sweat. WHAT happened? I’d heard no screams. I went outside and there was Tony having successfully cut the first 5 feet off the top of the tree. He was hanging on by a harness, LARGE chainsaw in the air, holding onto the tree with his free hand, singing his barbaric yawp.

“We are the champions, we are the champions, we are the champions of the WORLD!!!!”

That’s poetry.

Weather, a Matter of “Mood”?

I now live in a weather place. For 20 years, I lived in San Diego and, surprise, surprise, it’s a weather place, too. The weather is usually pretty subtle, but it’s definitely there. The coldest house I’ve ever lived in was 10 miles from the beach. When it gets down to 45 and there is no heat (normal for houses there) it’s COLD. That’s when I learned to wear long johns. Thank goodness I had a fireplace that offered, at least, an illusion of warmth. Space heaters are good in a closed space, but in an open, Spanish style, 1940s stucco house those heaters are not much good unless you sit on them.

Then I moved up to the mountains east of the city partly so I could have things like thunderstorms and freezing temps. I lived in a stone house that was originally built as a summer get-away cabin in the 1920s. I loved that house and the town and the landscape and it was hard to move away even though now I have all those things to the nth degree and I’m happy — and a house that is not as romantic and fairytale, but  lot more comfortable. I lived there for eleven happy years. The people who brought my California mountain cabin last year are already selling it. They’re going to lose money on it. One thing about a place like that is you don’t buy it in the heat of passion because it’s not easy to live in a weather place in Southern California. The house had all it needed to be comfortable for a person with low standards of comfort but… As someone said when I first moved in, “Most people stay here two years.”

I guess that weather up there is depressing. It’s hard when your pipes freeze for the first time and you don’t know enough to be grateful that all the plumbing is outside and it’s not flooding your house.

The other day I was walking the dogs. It was a clear sunny cool afternoon, air scoured clean by strong gusts 20 maybe 30 mph, narrow little brooms of wind. One came pushing across the golf course (open field this time of year with all the greens covered). It was fun to watch. It was 20 feet wide. It started high, bent the tops of the cottonwood trees, slid down its private little wind hill, hit the ground, whisked all the leaves off the ground and into the tennis court fence. I turned away from it, finally. When it had nearly spent itself, we continued. A pickup pulled up beside us and the driver said, “You’re tough.”

It’s been cold here these last few nights; cold is single digits and double digits preceded by a “-“. Since I have to leave the back storm door open enough for the dogs to push open and go out, those temps mean the water in the hoses to my washer could freeze. It happened yesterday because I forgot how that can happen. Now all is good and the hoses are protected. One of my friends posted on Facebook that it’s getting to be time for wool socks and headbands. Well, I’ve been wearing wool socks for a month now. No, not the same pair. Good grief.

The thing about weather is that it’s interesting as long as it’s not deadly. Here’s a story of a time — a legendary moment — when the weather turned very ugly long before anyone knew that life on the plains was gong to prove too “depressing” for most people.


Best NEIGHbors in the World

Good Fences? Who are your neighbors? Are you friends with them, barely say hi, or avoid them altogether? Tell us a story — real or invented — about the people on the other side of your wall (or street, or farm, or… you get the point). 

I love my neighbors. They are like family to me. There are three kids between 9 and 4 and two parents. Mexicans. The dad is a real cowboy. There are two little girls and a little boy, the youngest. They are a constant source of wonder. My love for them is returned. It took a little time to overcome the suspicion and reserve of the grownups. The mom doesn’t speak English and the dad has worked FOR whites all his life. At first he called me “Ma’am.” No more. But from the very beginning — well, kids and animals just like me.

I don’t even think grandparents see what I’ve seen just watching these kids. If I were attached to them, and had an expected and formalized relationship, I think it would be different. To show you what I mean completely, this post would end up very, very long, so just one amazing vignette.

Last week they got a horse. I’m not sure that the parents’ relationship was improved by the arrival of the horse, but the kids wanted a horse, it was free, there’s room for him, godnose the dad is great at handling horses, so here he is. I fell in love with him at first sight. He’s smart, gentle, friendly and really likes kids (and, of course, me). Later on that first day I went outside to get the mail and Andy, the little boy, was handing bits of hay to his horse.

“This is my horse, Martha!” AL

“I know, Andy, you are a really lucky kid. He’s beautiful. I love him.”

“Thank you.”

Andy then climbed to the top rail of the pen and leaned forward to wrap his arms around the horse. This boy has no fear of anything. This might be genetic. His dad was riding bulls when he was 7 years old. Later on the girls came home from school, and I got an excited phone call from Gabby, the oldest, “You gotta’ see our horse! Mom says you have a name for it!”

I did. I had named it Splash because of the white on his shoulder. The name didn’t stick. The kids named him “Brownie.”

“I’ll come outside.”

I found all three hanging on this horse, loving it and getting to know it. The horse was in, uh, Horse Heaven.

Every day since Splash/Brownie arrived, I’ve given him a carrot or two.  I feel happy when I come home from a long day and the horse paws the ground and whinnies, glad to see me.

Day before yesterday, when I headed out the door to school, Andy was hanging out with his horse. “Martha! Martha!”

“Morning, cowboy!”

“But I don’t have my hat on!”

“You’re still a cowboy.”

“Come here!”

I was late, but a person has to have priorities, and a little guy climbing on a fence to love his horse is more to me than going to work. I went to the pen and reached up to give Brownie/Splash a pat on the nose.

“I love him, Andy. He’s the best horse ever.”

“I know.”

“I gotta’ go to school. Hug the horse for me!” Andy climbed higher and wrapped his arms around what is now (after some days of rain) a dirty horse. The horse rested his nose on Andy’s little shoulder. Then Andy climbed over to my 6 foot fence with his arms outstretched to ME. He’s at that age where one minute he wants to hug and kiss the females in his life, and the next the whole thing disgusts him. I’d caught him in a hugging and kissing moment, so I went back and hugged him goodbye.

“Now get off that fence, Andy. See you later alligator.”

“After a while (incoherent syllables rhyming with ‘while’).”