I grew up in windswept Wyoming, where we always said only half-sarcastically there were just two seasons: Winter and the Fourth of July. In fact, the beginning and end of the summer growing season was precise: Plant a week before Memorial Day (when the last spring frost was possible but less likely) and harvest before first frost in mid-September. Those three months from one frost to another were the only chance flowers, vegetables and trees had to thrive in the rigorous climate. The other nine months of the year were frozen, dormant or molting.
After a few years away, I returned to Wyoming as an adult, to run a daily newspaper in a small town. My then-wife and I raised our children there, tended a beautiful flower and vegetable garden, and tended trees in high-plains soil where trees generally didn't grow naturally. A tree doesn't add much to itself with only three months to grow. So every Labor Day, it was my habit to take a measure of those trees, either their height or girth, just to reassure myself they were surviving. My Labor Day logs were painfully incremental, showing the young blue spruce gaining maybe 3 or 4 inches in a year, or a Canada red cherry adding only an inch of girth.
I kept my faith in them for many years, and continued to measure them the way we penciled my son's height against the doorjamb. To have lost them would have caused some grief. Trees were too valuable in that landscape. And they became a way to mark the passage of time and, I suppose, my own growth as I became more rooted. Ultimately, I was not as rooted as I thought, and other events swept me away, gone with the wind.
When I came to Southeast Texas 18 months ago, the landscape was festooned with trees. They grew like weeds in a tropical climate, and some people removed them helter-skelter, the way some people change the furniture in their living rooms. My front yard had three majestic trees, and the back had even more. I took comfort in these eight trees' maturity and shade. They were home to birds and squirrels that made the whole place seem more like a home than a house. These were my trees and I wouldn't have dreamed of cutting them down.
But Hurricane Rita took them all. A sturdy cedar was literally ripped out by its roots. The storm sheared off the tops of three tall pines, and stripped huge branches from all the rest. The hurricane-force gusts shaved off most of the leaves, split the crotches of the trunk, shoved them perilously toward the tipping point and slashed fences across their bark. It's the same story all over this region, where grand old trees bore the greatest brunt of non-human damage. In Beaumont, the storm even claimed the oldest tree in the city, a historic oak that was older than America itself; it was so large that when it came down, it damaged three different homes.
All but two will be gone when I go home tonight. The tree-cutters were expected today to chop them down and haul them away. I'll plant more, and maybe for a while, I'll measure their growth, just to be sure. An old habit from a short season.