“Like the days of a tree…” Mourning a California Pepper

I did not awake this morning to the news of the 27 killed in the Connecticut school shooting. Not having a television, or subscribing to a newspaper, or religiously checking news online, I was spared that until an email later alerted me.  Instead, I was roused early to the sound of chainsaws.  The pulsing buzz drifted into my consciousness, until I realized they were nearby.  I jumped out of bed; there’s no telling what the neighbors might do.
It was bad.  A beautiful old California Pepper Tree (actually Peruvian, schinus molle) was being taken down in the yard just north of us.  I ran outside in the frosty morning to see a major branch come crashing down.
I’m writing this only to salve my sadness as the tree slowly disappears outside my window. It’s a helpless feeling when one can only stand by and watch.      more/
It’s not that there aren’t dozens of these trees in the neighborhood.  Indeed, though it’s ubiquitous in California, the pepper isn’t native, and even considered invasive.  They were brought here by the Spanish padres (reportedly the first one was planted at Mission San Luis Rey in 1830).  But there are some really amazing old pepper trees, and in my opinion they are naturalized to our landscape in ways the (equally ubiquitous and invasive) eucalyptus never will be.
But this tree was old enough to command respect, and its large, drooping canopy masked the whole northwest corner of our lot from the street.  We regularly harvested its peppercorns from the huge branch that hung over our yard.  Last year some of our anarcho primitivist friends sat for hours picking and husking piles of the red peppercorn, which we grind and use instead of black pepper.  
I usually marvel at the art of taking down big trees.  Around here it’s only Mexican workers who practice this craft, and their acrobatic skill at roping themselves and the branches they are cutting high up is remarkable.  They are far more intimately literate in trees than I.  But it’s hard this morning to see the crew of eight laughing and joking as they systematically reduce this old tree to a stump.  It’s just a job for them; they won’t live with the absence of that tree.  Adding insult to injury, they are chipping the whole damn thing.  When we had to take out our diseased apricot and plum trees, we saved every millable piece, a master furniture-builder friend having promised to make us some tables.  But this morning I don’t even have the heart to go ask for some of the bucked branches for firewood.  
Our neighbors John and Sharon are elderly.  Sharon’s family homesteaded four lots here, including ours, in th 1950s, and they first lived in the 20 x 20 cinderblock building we now use as an office.  We appreciate the welcome they gave us almost eight years ago, but we have very different approaches to our yards.  We plant intensively, they have a big lawn. They joke that our yard is becoming a “jungle”; several years ago when we planted a valley oak (the most venerable native tree in our bioregion) near the fence, John warned us that “they’re just a nuisance.”   We plant trees, they cut theirs down.  There’s little we can say to dissuade them; they are, after all, senior to us both in terms of age and residency. 
“Solastalgia” is an environmental term coined to describe the feeling of missing a place that has been destroyed.  I’ve experienced far too much of it growing up in overdeveloped southern California, watching almost all my beloved hills, arroyos and beaches fall to the bulldozer.  I’d hoped to heal from it when we moved up to this valley, one of the last remaining watersheds where the indigenous chaparral and oak savannahs are relatively intact. 
It’s not even 10 am, and the crew is gone, the chipper and chainsaws silent.  In the yawning space where the tree used to be, all I can now see from my study window to the north are the ugly, scraggly “Trees of Heaven” that line the bike path (ailanthus altissima is an invasive nonnative from China, called there chouchun, or “foul smelling tree”).   I can’t bear to look.  
The loss of the tree next door is not as tragic as those 27 victims of the school shooting today.  But it still saddens me in deep places.  After all, Third Isaiah reminds us that “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be…” (Is 65:22).