The holly trees have stood at either end of the porch for nearly 15 years. They arrived in black plastic buckets, stubby and unimpressive, veritable runts compared to the proud sentinels they grew to be. I remember the delight with which I cut the first berry-bearing branches, so proud to be able to walk out the front door and gather from them my own Christmas decorations.
I have no idea when they grew so tall as to reach the corners of the house, so tall as to scrape the fascia boards when the wind comes roaring across the field rattling their branches. All I know is that they did and one night I went out to replace what I thought was a blown floodlight only to discover that it was flooding light just fine, thank you very much. The problem was the obscuring of said light by the prickly green branches of a holly tree that had grown, silently and unobserved, into a nuisance.
When one lives in the country, far from street lights and neon signs and strings of cars that send constant waves and arcs of halogen across the yard and through the windows, darkness becomes less an interference to regular activity and more a companion. Pushing the trash can to the road with no illumination beyond that of the stars becomes a reflection on the vastness of the universe. Walking to the mailbox under the light of a waning moon becomes a reminder of the tenderness of life.
But darkness can also be dangerous. One can, for example, turn an ankle in a hole dug by an armadillo while one is walking around after dark listening to the bullfrogs and trying to catch a whiff of lavender. So, after months of putting it off and only after being reminded by someone who was trying to be helpful that, as Charley Pride put it, snakes crawl at night, I had someone come out and trim back the holly trees so that I could actually see where I was going at night.
And by trim back I mean cut away everything green, saw off everything except the trunk and main branches leaving something vaguely resembling the silver aluminum Christmas trees that used to adorn the store windows downtown in the 1960s. Not attractive at this point, but with the promise of resurrection and the assurance that I could wander around outside at midnight if I so desired with at least enough illumination to avoid serious bodily harm.
The next morning I walked out onto the porch and the first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. The birds that generally greeted me with competitive singing had fallen silent. It took only a couple of seconds to realize why. And another couple of seconds to experience a wave of grief and guilt that nearly knocked me down.
It had never occurred to me that in eliminating – even if only temporarily – my own problem I was laying one at the doorstep of my neighbors. Not once did I think about the nests that might be, quite probably were, built in the branches that fell in heaps on the ground. Not once did I think about where the wrens and the swallows would rest, hide, sing.
And, yet, even as an apology came rushing out of my mouth, I had another thought, an audible memory. I heard the voice of every flight attendant on every plane in which I’ve ever been a passenger: “Secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” You can’t, it is explained, be of help to anyone unless you have first assured your own safety.
The trees needed to be cut back. Not just for me, but for them as well. All living things need pruning and shaping eventually. But I still feel guilty.
I think the birds have forgive me though. They haven't stopped showing up at the feeders a couple of times a day and they haven't stopped singing. They just do it from perches in other parts of the yard. And I, with the assistance of unobstructed floodlights, am still walking around in the dark.