Excerpts > Summer 2003

Lon Otto
The Urban Forest

The Urban Forest

Although he lived just two blocks from it, Marshall had journeyed into the Liberty Plaza housing project only once before. His son, in kindergarten then, had given a Hmong classmate a birthday party invitation. For a while the boy had stopped by almost every day on his way home from school to ask if they were going to have cake now, but Marshall was afraid the boy's parents didn’t know about the party. They might not have known English.

The morning of the party, while his ex-wife decorated the house, Marshall and Willy had walked over to the project and asked the few people they met—some children, a fierce-looking grandmother with a baby on her back, some teenagers—if they knew where a boy named Pao lived (Willy didn’t know his last name. No one could help them. A couple of times Marshall had tried to describe the boy—an inch or two taller than Willy and three times wider, powerful looking, with hair that stood straight up in a dense black brush. Marshall couldn’t tell if anyone even understood what he was saying. As they walked up and down the paths that wound among the brick apartment buildings and densely-planted vegetable gardens trellised with sticks and chicken wire, Willy kept a tight hold on his hand. Foreignness wrapped around them like an electric skin. They'd given up, finally, and a few weeks later Pao had ridden up to their front porch on a tiny bicycle and asked, was it time for them to have cake?

That had been over four years ago. This time Marshall was alone, lugging a long-handled shovel and branch lopper and leather gloves and brand new pruning shears and pruning knife and wire snips, high-laced work boots on his feet, cowboy hat shielding his bald head and tender neck from the September sun. At the neighborhood video store he'd seen a notice for volunteers to help plant trees around the housing project, one of several places in Minnesota where hundreds of Hmong people had been settled after years in refugee camps in Thailand. He'd left the office early today and come home in the middle of the afternoon, before his kids got home from school. He changed into old clothes and left a note saying where he was.

Marshall had done this kind of work before. The previous summer he'd shown up on a Saturday morning, joining fifty other volunteers to plant hackberry trees along a half mile of Selby Avenue. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had supplied the trees, which were delivered by beefy, sun-burned college boys from a nursery who dug the rough holes with a backhoe and next to each hole left a leafless tree lying on its side, its root ball wrapped in burlap and bound with ropes and cramped into a welded wire basket, branches trussed together with plastic ribbon.

Standing in front of the community jobs center, a guy from the DNR had given the assembled volunteers a speech about the urban forest, then demonstrated how to plant the trees. An argument had broken out concerning the wire basket, which was hard to cut once the root ball was in the hole and almost impossible to bend out of the way to release the top of the burlap. One of the nursery boys insisted that the wire had to stay fixed around the root ball, or it would fall apart when they tried to lift it into the hole. An old woman who'd been introduced as the Master Gardener supervising the tree planting grumbled to some in the crowd that the last time she'd done it they'd removed the wire first, which is what Marshall thought they should do, but she wouldn't confront the nursery boy, and the DNR guy wasn't sure, and the volunteers argued this way and that, with somebody every so often getting down in the hole with the root ball and trying his hand at clipping the wire and wrenching it out of the way.

The DNR guy’s little side-cut wasn’t up to the job. Somebody went home and brought back a bolt cutter, and that worked better, though it was still awkward working in the hole. Finally the nursery workers drove off in their big green truck and volunteers crowded in to shovel dirt back into the hole. Marshall moved down the street to work on a tree that was less mobbed.

Something had bothered him about the group of volunteers. It wasn't just that they were mostly white people in their late twenties and early thirties, it was the air of cheerful virtuousness that swirled among them. He liked the neighborhood’s mix of races(black and Asian and white and Hispanic) and it was disappointing to be merely one more white face in this do-gooder crowd.

After the crush of volunteers around the first few trees, small groups started to form and spread out. There were some forty trees sprawled along the boulevards on either side of the street in front of the old frame houses, half-abandoned storefronts, cinder block churches, karate center, earthwork-protected grade school, vacant lots, drug store with pictures of windows and shutters painted onto its blank brick walls. Marshall found himself working with a red-faced guy who said he was a retired DNR employee, a black guy with shaved head and a long beard, and the Master Gardener

By their third tree, Marshall's group had worked out a system. Rejecting the nursery boy's opinion, they started by cutting all the way down one side of the wire basket and bending it away until they could pull it off completely. Meanwhile, somebody measured the root ball with a shovel handle and adjusted the backfill to the right depth, and the Master Gardener snipped the ribbons that bound the limbs together and pruned a few little branches that didn't look right to her. Then the men heaved the tree upright, looped the web sling around the root ball, grabbed onto the four loose ends of the sling, braced themselves, and on the count of three lifted and swung it over and lowered it into the hole. The rest was easy—retrieving the sling, sawing through the ropes that trussed the root ball, peeling back the burlap and stuffing it down around the sides, half-filling the hole, watering, filling the hole the rest of the way, and surrounding the tree's base with shredded bark.

Among the rocks and loose dirt of every fourth or fifth hole, they'd find rotting fragments of old burlap—graveclothes of a previous tree planting. They speculated that maybe the species had been something less hardy than these hackberries, or playing kids or a veering car had snapped it off before it was big enough to take care of itself, or its first summer might have been too dry and nobody had thought to run a hose out and water it. Some of the residents watched the volunteers skeptically. “Do this every couple years,” a woman said from her porch. “Goddamn waste of money.”

Most people had seemed glad to see the trees going in, however. When a shirtless old man came down off his porch at one point to complain that they were putting too small of a tree in front of his house, the retired DNR man went and got the mulch truck, and he and the bearded guy and Marshall loaded the unwanted tree into its bed and exchanged it with one that had been left in front of a car repair shop.

The work had taken longer than Marshall expected, and he’d gotten brutally sunburned by the end of the day, but he was proud to have been involved. He was happy, now, to come to another tree planting, better equipped and knowing what to do from the beginning, to work with his Hmong neighbors, still as alien to him as they had been eight years before. Eight years, living two blocks away from them.

When Marshall arrived at the housing project, he saw that the nursery trucks had been by already, leaving balled and burlapped trees next to holes chopped into the boulevard. The trees were leafed out this time—something with shiny bark and spear-shaped leaves standing balanced on their root balls along the west side, and maples lying down on the south, the front of the project, where the volunteers were supposed to meet.

No one else was there. A bunch of preschool kids were approaching from the other end of the block, surrounding two Hmong women wearing long, intricately-patterned blouses and skirts that swung just above their sandaled feet, their hair swathed in printed scarves. Before they reached him, the women turned aside, herding the toddlers between two of the apartment buildings and out of sight.

Marshall checked his watch. He dumped his tools on the grassy boulevard and wandered down to the end of the block. Along the east side of the project, too, the boulevard was lined with those shiny-barked trees. They leaned this way and that as the street slid down toward the freeway, but they were small enough to balance upright over the weight of their root balls, which were bound only with burlap and rope, free of the wire baskets that had been such a pain in the ass planting hackberries that summer. There was welded wire around the maples' root balls, though.

He studied a little garden between two buildings, an arbor constructed from chicken wire, dead branches, pieces of plastic grill from a window fan, a broken hockey stick, electrical conduit, mop handle, coiled telephone cord, bicycle handlebars with handbrakes still attached. Jalapeños and onions and baby eggplant grew beneath the arbor, and some kind of squash vine was climbing over it, with long, pale green fruit dangling. The largest, big as a coffee pot, hung cradled in the bill of a faded blue Nike visor.

Finally he sat down at the curb, the two and three-story apartment buildings of Liberty Plaza at his back. After a while a DNR guy drove up in a yellow truck and explained that there was a service club for teenagers at the housing project, and they would be the main ones working on the planting. They must be still in school. He gave Marshall the name of the woman who was in charge of the club, Lee, then unloaded shovels, rakes, pitchforks, and a couple web slings, and drove off again to get a load of mulch.

It was a hot afternoon, more like midsummer than early fall. Marshall stretched out on the grassy boulevard and covered his face with the cowboy hat. For a while, every time a car drove by he tilted the broad-brimmed hat to see who it was. But nobody stopped. He was right next to the sidewalk. The vulnerability of lying there stirred a thin buzz in his stomach and joints, itched behind his eyes. It was his neighborhood, and yet it was a foreign country, the air strange with unfamiliar cooking odors drifting out of the apartments, the ground vibrating with the footsteps of ghosts.

At a party a few months before, he’d met a Nigerian woman, a poet visiting from New York. In an articulate, rational voice she had spoken of the Hmong as a race of opium traders, natural allies of the drug-dealing CIA. Marshall had felt disloyal to his neighbors, but said nothing. He didn't know enough. Their situation was too strange to think about clearly. Farmers from the mountainous frontier separating China and Laos, what could they have thought when they arrived in Minnesota, in St. Paul? When the CIA recruited them to fight against the communists, who could have had a vision strong enough to see those years in refugee camps, then this country, this northern, this Midwestern state, this inner-city neighborhood, these balled and burlapped trees?

For a moment he didn't know where he was. Somebody was there, saying something. He must have fallen asleep. A woman was crouched next to him, her body radiating a perfume of salt and oranges. “Are you Marshall?” she said. “I'm Lee.” A young white woman, with permed brown hair and large glasses.

He'd been expecting a Hmong person. That was why he was here, to get to know some of them, who walked by his house every day but never exchanged more than a shy nod of greeting. Then why this rush of happiness? She stood and helped him up. A dry, strong hand that sent electricity flooding into him. She was as tall as he was, dressed in a faded red T-shirt and khaki shorts, heavy socks and hiking boots.

“The kids will be here in a few minutes,” she said. “Thanks for helping us. Steve said you were coming.”

“Sure, I like doing this sort of thing.” Steve was the DNR guy? “You know,” he said, “I think we've met before.”

She studied his face. “You look familiar, too,” she said without conviction. “You live around here? We've probably run into each other.” She reached out and took his wrist and turned it a little so she could read his watch. “They should be here by now.” She walked down the sidewalk a few steps.

With the pressure of her fingers burning on his arm, he stood braced, holding his breath as a wave of longing rolled over him, tossing recognition into the air finally like a glistening chip of wood. Susanna, his girlfriend in college. Lee was so much like her, the smell of her, timbre of voice, that height, gray eyes behind those big glasses, he could barely breathe, he could feel that frizzy hair pressed against his lips, the taste of her bitter smoker's mouth. Susanna. More truly her than she could possibly be herself by now, twenty-five years later, a mother, perhaps, as he was unbelievably a father.

He sat down on the grassy boulevard again, smelling the air of southern California, the sweet rage of antiwar protests, the exploding word “Cambodia,” textbooks grown weightless and inconsequential, sex in an emptied dormitory on a thin, unmade bed, the bite of tear gas drifting across the quad.

And then everybody was there. The DNR guy, Steve, arrived with a truckload of shredded bark. Two white-haired women in a Volvo pulled up behind him, and a knot of teenage girls emerged from somewhere in the housing project, followed by a straggle of other girls and a few boys. The kids were Hmong, mostly, though two of the girls were black, as was one of the Volvo women, another Master Gardener.

Marshall and Steve demonstrated the planting process with one of the maples. This time nobody questioned the wisdom of cutting off the wire basket before lifting the tree. When they had fastened the sling around the root ball, Marshall grabbed two of the handles, but the DNR guy called for volunteers, and a tall black girl who looked too fragile for the job leaped forward and took one of the ends from Marshall and a solid-looking Hmong girl grabbed the third handle. With the DNR guy on the fourth strap, they lifted on the count of three, and to loud encouragement from the other kids they staggered to the hole and lowered the wildly thrashing tree till its heavy root ball rested on the backfill.

The two girls sprang out of the hole and chanted “Girls rule! Girls rule!” to the boys who had walked up to the scene so casually you wouldn't have known they were a part of it. Work groups formed. Nina and Choa, the two who had helped with the first tree, and a square-built boy who looked like a grown-up version of Pao, whose name Marshall never did catch, and a Hmong girl everybody called Frenchie worked with Marshall, along with four or five kids who wandered in and out, now shoveling, now taking a hand with the wire nipper, now hauling hose.

Marshall kept an eye on the group Lee was working with. It felt like an unbelievably cruel dream, her friendly indifference to him, their eyes meeting now and then but never locking, the first woman with whom he'd ever been in love.

As he dug, as he threaded the sling together and heaved against the weight of tree and earth, he felt the ache throbbing from twenty-five years before, when they'd clung to each other on that narrow dormitory bed and debated his flight to Canada, weighed in their mouths a year in prison, pressed their bodies against his single digit draft lottery number like a tongue drawn to a broken tooth, feverish considerations that were about to be swept away forever by an epileptic seizure in the middle of the night. He’d woken in the infirmary, remembering nothing. “My son would give his left nut for this,” the college doctor had told him a week later, after explaining the electroencephalogram results, a seismograph that had shaken Marshall’s draft status from 1A down to 4F, medically unfit.

Nothing was the same after that. Susanna had joined the Peace Corps following graduation and was sent to the Philippines, and Marshall had gone to the seminary for a while, a solution that appeared feasible only after there was no longer a problem to solve. He watched Lee now, towering over the Hmong teenagers as Susanna must have done among her villagers, and wondered mechanically, as he had for years afterward, why the left nut? He'd never told any of this to Irene, the woman he married during his seminary year, nor to Rachel, the one after that, the mother of his children, who lived a few miles away now and kept the kids on alternate weeks. His left nut, an expression.

They finished the maples, then started on the Japanese lilacs, which is what the trees with the shiny bark turned out to be. Because the street sloped downhill so steeply here, it was hard to judge when the trees were upright, he had to line them up with an edge of the apartment buildings.

There were more and more people around—Hmong woman with their little children, school age kids who liked to swing around on the narrow trunks and tended to wander off with tools, and some more teenage boys. He lost track of his pruning shears, then his shovel, but went on without them, caught up in a march that wouldn't stop for him to look around. A large boy who turned out to be Pao came by and remembered him and asked about Willy, then ran off with his friends—slight, delicate-looking children who made Pao seem even more massive.

Marshall hadn't had anything to drink all afternoon and kept hoping that his son or daughter would come to see how things were going, maybe offer to bring him a soda or something, try to pitch in. Willy usually watched television when he got home from school, and Hannah worked on her homework. Marshall was thinking about this as he snugged up the sling and called for another lifter. Frenchie, slender but strong, and Choa, who had that solid build and could lift as well as any of them, were still there, but Nina and the sumo boy had gone off to rake mulch. One of the new boys, small and wiry, reached down and took hold of a strap handle. Marshall, Choa, and Frenchie grabbed the other straps, and they lifted the tree on three and got it into the hole.

The new volunteer stepped back, lighted a cigarette, and talked in Hmong to a boy who had begun to shovel in fill dirt even before Marshall had retrieved the sling. They were older than the others from the club, Marshall thought. Then he realized that they were a lot older, not brothers to the teenagers, but fathers or uncles, his own age, maybe older. They were small, no taller than his ten-year-old son, which was what had fooled him at first.

Marshall looked around. More and more of the volunteers were these men, who must have been coming home from jobs, English language classes, bureaucratic offices. Their faces were carved and leathery, the skin of farmers, though they were dressed in city clothes—corduroys, double-knit pants, shirts with long collars that were fashionable a few years ago, a University of Minnesota sweatshirt, a nylon Twins jacket.

The teenagers, meanwhile, were evaporating. Choa was gone, then Frenchie. He couldn't see Lee anymore. The Hmong fathers picked up shovels and moved to the next tree. Marshall brought the sling along and threaded it around a root ball, then went over and showed a man how far to backfill the hole, then ran back and reattached the sling that two men had been using to drag the tree forward.

He explained the procedure again, and couldn't tell how much anybody was understanding. Everybody was talking, five or six men crowding in sometime, taking hold of the tree anyway they could. He finally managed to get the sling back in place, two men took hold of a handle each, and Marshall grabbed the other two. “Okay,” he said, “we'll lift on the count of three.” One of the men started lifting early, sending the tree tilting back into Marshall's face, knocking off his cowboy hat. He laughed, trying to recover. “Not two and a half. Three. We'll lift on three.” He counted emphatically and mimed the lift on three. The men nodded, and this time they managed a successful lift, swing, and lower, though the one guy was still a little early.

The hole hadn't been backfilled enough to raise the top of the root ball to grade. Marshall explained again how it was supposed to be and rocked the tree over so he could work more soil under the roots while several men shoveled dirt around it. He got out his pruning knife and started working on the ropes that secured the burlap. It was getting dull from sawing through the hard hemp. A man who seemed a little older than the rest, his face more deeply lined and his thick hair going silver, took the knife from him and stropped it on the worn leather sole of his shoe. Instead of handing it back, he jumped down into the hole himself and started slicing away at the ropes.

Some men were working on the next tree. They had the sling technique down by now, but made room for Marshall to grab a handle before starting to lift. “One! Two!” a man shouted, another man heaved up just after “Two,” and they raised the tree and its root ball, the rest rushing to keep up with the early lifter, laughing.

It was getting toward supper time, and the women were gone. There were still plenty of little kids around. Not Marshall's, though. He'd expected Willy to come over by now, but he knew that Hannah wouldn't. She'd never adjusted to the neighborhood and believed that most of her Hmong classmates were in gangs. When Marshall dismissed the notion, she turned on him in anger. “What do you know?” she'd shouted at him.

What did he know? Not much. These men he was working with, who joked around and laughed and squeezed his biceps when they'd gotten a tree into its hole and told him “You strong!” Were they being ironic, mocking him? Had they been soldiers, killing with knives and crossbows and automatic weapons in the mountain forests of Laos, fighting the war that had flexed its great claws at Marshall, then let him get away without a scratch, let him go without even touching him? He didn't know. He didn't know much.

There were still quite a few trees left, but the job went fast now. They worked around the far side of the housing project and faced more of the wire-caged maples. Marshall went ahead and cut through the cages with his wire snips, the only tool he had left by now, and the Hmong fathers opened the cages like bear traps and slung the trees into the ground with increasing abandon, measuring nothing, never stepping back to make sure the trees were straight, filling the holes without waiting for the hoses to be dragged out to the street. Every time, now, they chanted in unison, “One! Two! Three!” but nobody waited for “Three.” Somebody would always strain upward suddenly on a sling handle on “Two” or before “Two” and everybody else would struggle to keep up with him so the tree wouldn't knock them backward into the dirt. It was a joke, they laughed like crazy, tired and loose after whatever bleak day they'd had, enjoying the communal work of planting trees.

Then they were done. The Hmong fathers lighted cigarettes, talked among themselves for a few minutes, and started heading back through the housing project. Marshall discovered that even his wire cutter was gone. He looked around in the half-light, then picked up the last DNR shovel and joined the others. “You from the church?” one of the men asked him as they walked. No, Marshall answered, he was just a neighbor. The man nodded. “You strong,” he said.

Not many people were around when they got back to the front of the project. Nina was still helping Steve shovel forks full of mulch from the huge pile of shredded bark into a wheel barrow, but Lee and the rest of the environmental club had gone off somewhere. The Master Gardener and the other Volvo lady were just driving away.

At the corner, Marshall looked down one line of trees, then another. In the dim light cast by streetlamps, anyway, they looked pretty good. Steve came up and thanked him for helping. Marshall walked back with him to the DNR truck to leave the shovel, which he’d been thinking about keeping. On the boulevard grass next to the truck he found his hat, wire cutter, pruning knife, pruning shears, lopper, gloves, and shovel, all of his tools, laid out in a neat row. There was going to be mulch left over, Steve said, and told him to help himself if he needed any for his own yard. But when he came back the next afternoon with his garden cart, he found that they had used all of it, surrounding every tree and shrub and garden in the entire housing project with neat rings of shredded bark.

The new trees survived a long, harsh winter and leafed out the following spring. The Japanese lilacs were just starting to open their first flowers when somebody came by in the night and chopped down five of them with an ax or machete that left a litter of broad white flakes strewn over the grass like apple blossoms. Marshall's ex-wife was driving their kids back to his house when they discovered the damage. She told him that Hannah had started to cry and both children were heartbroken for him, that somebody had destroyed his hard work. He was angry and sad for a while, but after somebody came by and removed the mutilated limbs and stubbed trunks, he got over it. It was the urban forest. These things happened.


About PS   What's New   Curr Iss   Subscriptions  Submissions   Archives  E-mail   PS Home   UNL Home