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Confessions of a Ninja tree sapper.

I admit it. I'm a tree sapper. When I'm working the night shift dressed in dark clothing to avoid detection, I suppose I qualify as a ninja tree sapper. So go ahead, arrest me.

But firstly you'll have to catch me. And since I do most of my diggings at dawn before most people have one eye open, it'll take a very early riser to stop me. Besides, I'm usually in and out of a job before you can make coffee.

Yep, just like the military sapper who trenches in and blows up installations with high explosives, I trench in seedlings and saplings and blow up the landscape with trees--sometimes with permission, sometimes without. Frankly, without is more exciting. I see a spot needs a tree and, dig dig dig, I'm in there with a seedling, a soaking shot of water, and out again before the landowner knows what hit him. It's probably worng, but there you are.

It all started back when I was a kid. One day I watched my father plant a lemon bush and a pecan tree on our barren little place in southern California, and before I was old enough to boost hubcaps, we had a steady supply of lemonade, and nut pie. Nut pie was my favorite. Right then I knew I'd grow up to be a tree sapper.

At first I planted trees only on my own property. My wife and I bought one of those track homes where they don't pour the foundation until all the bushes and trees have been bulldozed and the soil's been scraped smooth as a tennis court. Except for a pale green three-bedroom house square in the middle, out lot looked like a Martian desert. We had to do something. A half dozen trees helped, and the next 30 made our postage-stamp lot start to feel earthlike. Within a few years, I had the place looking like a rainforest. My wife cracked, "If you don't stop this tree planting pretty soon, I'll have to call the Forest Police."

I wan't sure there was a Forest Police, but if threw a scare into me. I changed my tactics. I started planting early in the morning, you know, when no one was around. That's when I slipped across the line.

It was real innoncent at first. I had a few small aspens left over from a backyard caper and before I realized what I was doing, I was over in my neighbor's yard, planting them in the back of his garden. The sun wasn't even up, but hey, this guy didn't have a single tree along his whole back fence! Besides, he was the kind of numbskull citizen who wouldn't notice a 100-foot Douglas-fir if it shop in the middle of his driveway. And believe me, his place was begging for something deciduous. I guess what startled me was the high I got sneaking those sprigs in when he wasn't looking. A real thrill. And it didn't go away; every time I'd see one of those aspens crow out another row of radishes, I'd get a whole new rush.

Then we bought five acres in the country. Heavily wooded. About 2,000 pine trees surrounded our digs. I was in hog heaven. I thought i was cured. But I wasn't. Two weeks after the house was finished, the craving came back:

Where was I going to plant trees? That's when I went round the bend and got into the sapper racket in a big way.

When I first started out, I'd swipe saplings from the Burlington Northern railroad rights-of-way before the cleanup crews came along to cut them down or poison them out. Pulling them dry-root style late in the fall, I could lift a couple dozen small pines and aspens in the morning and have them all sapped into new locations before nightfall. But even if trees are easy to lift, you still need places to plant them. So you have to look around, scope things out, case the barren places, and, you know, get familiar with your turf.

Like down the road from where I live, there's this little spring-fed pond that sometimes dries out in August after a hot summer. Once it's bone dry, you can't find a mallard for five miles. I know the guys who own the land (a builder and an accountant). They're smart guys, and I've had chicken at their place, but they don't know beans about trees or shade or how, with just a few minutes' work and some decent root growth, they could have a first-rate, cool-water pond that would give everybody in the neighborhood a hand up. So a few years back, I sapped in a couple of mountain ashes and a lilac bush. Call it a signature job.

What really sent me beyond the pale was finding out my county extension agent was in the mob. For a few measly bucks, these guys will get you all the little trees you want. You can go pick them up, or they'll mail them to you--all legal like. You open them up. Suddenly, there you are--a shovel in one hand and a bucket of saplings in the other. It's enough to make anybody a little dangerous. The county boys will even send you a sapper's instruction sheet--which, of course, an old pro like me needs like another hole in the head.

One time--this'll kill you--I got a shipment of Foundation spruce trees I didn't know what to do with. But then I remembered my neighbor. (It's hard not to remember this neighbor, especially since I can hear him playing pickleball on his cement court every evening all summer long.) This neighbor's a lawyer. I love a lawyer same as everyone else, so I says to myself, 'Self, why not see what happens when you plant a bunch of spruce trees smack dab on a property line--the one between you and a lawyer.' If the poet's right--that "good fences make good neighbors"--then a spruce forest between us ought to make us positively delirious.

So the very next morning I got up real early, jumped into my ninja outfit, grabbed my shovel and water bucket, and, before a light even came on in his house, dug in a whole row of potential litigation. Talk about your highs. I can hardly wait for the day my lawyer wakes up, rolls over, looks out the window, and says to his wife Edna, "Hey! Edna! How in the hell did those big trees get there?" (I tell you, I do backflips just thinking about it.)

Generally, I sap in trees that fit the local flora so nobody's the wiser--that way the mark never figures out what hit him. But sometimes I'll dig in an oddball, you know, just to shake some citizen's bush. Like one time I planted a weeping willow on a pal's place as a secret birthday gift. And wouldn't you know it, a beaver got it before my friend even noticed he had a 10-footer crowding his barbecue pit.

I don't like to admit it, but it's true: I've tree sapped complete strangers. For the record, though, I'm taking the fifth about who they are. Besides, to my way of thinking, tree sapping is a victimless crime--in spite of my wife's appraisal that such hogwash comes from a "semi-criminal mind." Cripes, most people like trees once they have them; they just don't think about them, not having them in the first place. Like you could hold up a picture of a typical downtown city block and ask, "What's missing here?" and only an ecofreak or tree sapper would say, "Trees." Everyone else would say, "A McDonald's?"

I've done a little urban sapping, but frankly it isn't all that easy to get away with. I imagine getting busted.

"Hey, you! What're you up to?"

"Planting a tree."

"Sure. And my mother's Snow White. Hand over that shovel, buddy, and don't make any sudden moves. Whatta you got buried there? Dope?"

So mostly I work the countryside--you know, the places where they've cut down all the trees to make way for progress and bumper crops. Mind you, I don't plant right in the middle of a guy's pea field, but what's wrong with the edges? Everybody loves edges. And I never trespass. Hey, that would be illegal.

I need to get this next bit off my chest.

Yep, I'm the guy who did it. At least one of them. I won't say where I did it or who I did it to, but I did it: I planted a tree right in front of a billboard.

Sure, I knew it was wrong. And I knew what would happen. But during all the years I drove into the city to work every day, I got to see that ponderosa sneaking up on that eyesore. Call me sick, call me crazy, but sometimes seeing that pine tree was the only lift I got all day.

Then, about a year ago the sign changed hands. A new housing development needed a map to guide prospects from the freeway to the off ramp. Sure enough, someone whacked my tree so folks could read the directions while zipping down the interstate. I went nuts. I had planted that tree after Lady Bird Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. We'd done time together. But if I went nuts, somebody else went psychotic. The next day the whole sign was lying flat as a pancake on the field. Looked like one of those chainsaw billboard massacre jobs. I swear, I had nothing to do with it. (Sorry, but I can't help this grin.)

But things are changing. There's even a proposed federal law that would make it illegal to cut down a tree in front of a billboard. Frankly, the whole tree-sapping racket isn't what it used to be. You've got kids all over the world sapping trees for peace. You've got whole cities breaking up perfectly good cement sidewalks to make room for trees. You've got the American Forestry Association's Global ReLeaf campaign to plant 100 million trees by 1992. You've got outfits like the National Urban Forest Council acting up. My morning paper carried an article about how Idaho's Silver Valley mining companies have agreed to plant a million trees on the barren slopes of the land they've ravaged for 100 years--all in an effort to help clean soil contaminated by decades of lead and zinc smelting.

Everywhere you look, perfectly respectable citizens are standing up for trees. Naturally, politicians from the President on down are elbowing each other out of the way trying to get to lead one tree-sapping parade or another. Yep, things are a-changin'.

To tell you the truth, I appreciate the company. It's like getting a pardon. And it's been good getting this stuff off my chest. Sneaking around all these years was getting to me. Now all I have left to do is go around and confess to my victimes. It won't be easy.

Like the other night my neighbor across the street and I were standing on his front porch having a toddy when, because it was October and the needles were turning yellow, he suddenly noticed a tamarack growing right in the middle of his pine woodlot.

"Hey!" he says. "Isn't tjat a tamarack growing there by my driveway?"

"Looks like it," I says.

"I don't get it," he says. (He's an old Forest Service hand and knows his trees.) "Tamaracks don't grow at this elevation."

"Yeah," I says. "That's pretty weird."

"How the hell do you suppose it got there?" he says.

So I says, "Beats me."

(I guess I got a way to go yet, huh?)

Paul Quinnett of Cheney, Washington, is a psychologist who worked for the Forest Service before "going straight."
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:planting trees
Author:Quinnett, Paul
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Previous Article:Forest plans & politics: crisis in the making.
Next Article:Places of grace.

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