What is killing New Jersey’s trees? Or, rather, who?

Springfield, Hillside Avenue

Two weeks ago, Elizabeth city workers accidentally chopped down a tree in front of my house. The city quickly tried to compensate but the event made me look at trees a little more closely–in Elizabeth and throughout the state. What I saw was massive destruction, maiming, and disfigurement, mostly by power and cable companies with the active cooperation of municipal governments.  They are making our cities ugly beyond tolerance–and unhealthy.  A reader also saw what I saw and wrote the prose poem that follows–“Ode to a Tree. By PSE&G.” He wants to be known  only as TK-2015.  He and I and his wife took the pictures.




Ode, to a Tree, by PSE&G


Your thinking is correct, it could not ever happen. Unless? No, it’s not even possible.


By the current utility poles versus trees calculus, under which we now suffer, as an earnestly striving to be state of the art, but in fact grossly and selectively underfunded and not quite thoroughly modern version of the American dream, trees have been relegated to the identity and status of dirty pests.



Big ones, in fact. Big enough to break an entire house or flatten a brand new Prius.


Pests that predictably rain their myriad stuff, and then fall, in parts, on innocent people and their property. Pests which, all too often, will tip over and kill without warning.


Pests that are now, should you decide to, very costly to have removed. Who stands to profit?


Does anyone know or care anymore, what sorts of conditions lead to such mayhem? Is there an algorithm?




ver since Johnny and Janie, way back when, went all patent leather and wall-to-wall preprogrammed for success, and their lesser lights and other hapless pretenders deep into debt (to avoid winding up on the baneful bottom half of the no opportunity scale, where moms and dads have become perilously dependent on all day preschool, as they dual income tag team their growing personal debt nut that, nonetheless, is still scheduled to eat their imaginary golden years), and others face health care costs which will snowball, insanely, in the last ninety days of their mortal existence–never minding the bill for the first seventy-two hours of someone else’s own pride and joy in this, the miracle of a completely new life–there is, it seems, no one left available to perform the simple work of raking up leaves and bagging them for pickup.



No one, it appears, save for the blah people. With the blowers. Who couldn’t, in their entire working lifetime, even hope to purchase real art.


Burning them, of course, is long ago out of the question. And it costs a bundle to move all that gravity- aided and wind-driven natural nourishment from the buttressed feet of trees, where it originally falls, to the county compost station for proper disposal, and then back again another day, in the form of cooked down black gold leaf humus and mulch, which is then re-spread beneath the canopy drip line, and works wonders to help keep trees happy, healthy, and strong.


Happy, for sure, in all the better neighborhoods, enclaves, and open spaces of our upscale neighbors and conspicuously anti-communist, sensationally anti-socialist, and curiously corporate welfare driven comrades.


All that movement, of desk bound bodies and mindless minds, of trucks and equipment, of sweaty workers, as they corral November’s crackly things onto big tarps, with screaming ninety-seven mile per hour wind turbine lariats, and then suck them up into leaf shredding vacuum machines and load them for transport, yes, there’s a charge for that. Budgets are struggling and everyone knows we need to have an answer to this burgeoning issue, among so many others, as it clamors for our attention.



We need tax breaks and budget cuts! And we need them now! Prep school ain’t cheap, ya know. Never was. Can you donate a new library or something?


Heat, hot water, and phone service (which used to arrive over copper wires, and were thoughtfully run to a separate spot on your residence from the power lines, for survivability, and carry their own reliable electrical signal) are all being rendered “smart,” and thereby more susceptible to power outages (goodbye old dependable millivolt thermostat, hello sophisticated microchips, and perishable local battery backups, and whole-house temporary generator systems), so a loss of household power due to blackout or storm damage becomes that much more precarious, particularly for the vulnerable, and especially during the hottest and the coldest months of the year.


But have faith, because this is all going to eventually tie seamlessly into the highly efficient smart grid which, by simple principles of careful and real time resource distribution, featuring instantaneous rerouting of all available energy resources, as well as the proven magic of centralized and highly enlightened pushbutton and preprogrammed monitoring, will yield that extra bump in efficiency that is going to help propel us into the bright new world of an energy intensive and data driven tomorrow.



With all of this promise, and the attendant responsibility for the health, welfare, and resealable cold cuts of the free world, would it be irresponsible for the higher ups of the nation’s power companies to be trifling with such pastimes as poetry? With all that technical stuff to dream up, test, and rush to the public, could they ever find the time to exercise their creative side and stop, for a life-changing moment, to appreciate something as simple, and common, and utterly mundane as our old friend the tree?


Could they? No, not ever. Unless?



Unless you stop to notice, as have so many quizzical and not too busy nor overly screen-enchanted humans, the strange and mangled shapes in which the mature trees of the future-as-now are being forced to present their struggling arms. The younger plantings, crazy as that seems, are getting lopped  too.


Wait. I meant to say limbs. Their limbs. No offense intended to the tree world and none taken, I’m sure. Please forgive my reflex anthropomorphism before allowing me to continue, if you will.


Yes, our storied and venerable cityscapes, and our more concrete laden suburbs–the ones which tend to take a double shot of urban in their asphalt and caffeine-laced suburban idylls—are fast becoming, like almost every other aspect of our paltry and soulless bourgeois existence, overrun by very bad and unsigned corporate sponsored street sculpture.


Our schools, our hospitals, the airplanes overhead, entertainment venues, stadia of every shape and size, accompanied by those old standbys–bus billboards and big box stores—are sporting proud new splashes of aristocratic endorsement energy, deftly swirled and splatter-painted across their aluminum, composite, and newly engineered skins.



But let’s stick with shade trees for the moment.


The gray months, soon to be sprinkled and frosted with post solstice sky sugar, are just around the calendrical corner, once again unveiling and revealing … what, exactly? What are the regional lungs of the earth saying to us, and why have so many once great specimens yielded to looking like giant primitive slingshots and stranger things, such as a five-year-old might fashion from some found wood he or she just kicked clear of a freshly mounded heap of autumn leaves and then jammed straight into the ground?



Trees have long been known as a small investment which yields continual, even exponential returns, over decades, then centuries, and in places that actually revere them, for entire millennia. Britain’s said-to-be oldest yew tree dates back more than five thousand years and shelters in a churchyard.


Meanwhile, back across the pond, here in Christie drenched New Jersey–a place once innocently heralded as the Garden State, where a four season specimen of darn near anything will thrive like a weed, but is now more aptly described as the Corrupt, Corrode, and Callously Compost, Before You Proceed to Berate, Shamelessly Scapegoat, and Then Terminate State–our silent sidewalk sentries of civilization, the tallest cousins of our community horticultural heritage, are being mangled en masse, as though no one will notice.



This cannot be happening by chance, nor by accident. There must be an intelligent design at play here somewhere, some noble inspiration underpinning the whole gaudy, confusing, and profane magnificence of it.


So, I wonder, is it art?


You betcha! And it is coming to everything, absolutely everything, and every precious aspect of your life, be it public or personal, while you blissfully slumber, while your eyelids droop and you two finger swipe your drop dead sexy new mobile controller and very own personal thing monster.



While you slowly unlearn what makes the grasses grow, and silently forget the familiar fall sound of acorns throwing random beats on your illegally installed backyard canopy carport contraption, and you suddenly notice your air conditioning bill is on the rise, and you can see clean through your neighbor’s house across the street and wonder, did I really want to see that?



That wasn’t there before, was it?


And what the hell is all that echo? This used to be such a quiet street. A soulful street. A four season, free to everyone, sixteen-part harmony of sight, sound, and occasional fury. A majestic cathedral of arboreal architecture, the kind that shapes itself when you ask nothing of it, that conforms and then replies, so beautifully, to every attention of a caring hand. That dazzles in spring and in fall, shelters in summer, then silhouettes against the scarified sky when the sun is, assuredly, in shortest supply.


What of the street that perennially puzzles with its myriad mystery clues, a new installment each and every year as you progressively plunge, deeper and deeper, into the question of why … these funny things … which blow around my feet and through my world? What are they meant to do, the little green helicopters, the shiny little squirrel nuts, those fuzzy and floaty things, which hide out all winter and that then shoot up green, each and every spring, like rockets, to a whole new life, just beginning, again.


What, you will wonder, is the message of this new installation, here, on the street where you live. Did the improvement authority rumble through and leave you with something stark, like the white room with the clean sweep? That stunningly empty impromptu amphitheater of no more blowy things at all?


Or will you get the fifty-fiftyish slice of something even more conceptual? That gnarled and incomprehensible shape. That indescribable scything of something that used to be considered safe, and safe from harm.



Yup, that’s the one, so look out, peoples! It’s coming around to all the towns. Who is that street artist and where did they get those moves? That looks … a little like … a public decapitation.


Doesn’t it?


“No speak English,” the first tree specialist says, from atop his bucking bucket truck, as you ask him what he’s up to on this, his latest in the series, now approaching your billing address. You wait for the second truck, as it swings wide of the lead vehicle and leapfrogs ahead, asserting its place as the one in charge. The driver seems friendly enough, and alert, as his truck breezes by and comes to a stop beneath your tree, so you walk up and encounter an only slightly grizzled guy who is nice enough and who mans it solo and who answers that he’s from upstate.


Both boom trucks bear the same company emblem. You notice a tree service name you never saw before, proudly, yet discretely, painted on each door.


“Don’t let ’em work in front of your house if they don’t speak English,” he says, in response to the concerns you share about what the fuck is about to happen, again, to your hard found bliss. “Just tell them to go and wait for another truck if you want to be safe,” he advises.



“Those guys are the worst. They just hack,” he says, about the second truck, and all such crews of a similar description, and you suddenly realize you have his full attention, such as it is.


Ugly red tree

“Yeah, I know what a pollarding is,” he affirms, as you point to the slingshot slash job from four years ago, the one that happened to your frontside view while you were out, getting groceries, on an otherwise beautiful early spring day, sometime in twenty-eleven. Or was it two-oh-one-two?


“We come every four years,” he assures you. “But it wasn’t us last time,” adding, “Whoa, that’s ugly,” as he follows your finger to the mangled maple.


“Yeah, I can fix it,” he says, as you proceed to describe your last ditch version and vision of a hopeful way out of this radical mess. Meanwhile, the other truck rumbles down the road to parts inevitable, pneumatic chainsaws, whisper quiet, redefining the meaning of what remains of your street, its heart, its soul, its very purpose in life, now bent to some other message, this new inspiration.


“Ya don’t want to lose power do you?” he asks, with eyes suddenly intense, like you might be half mad in asking him, in not so many words, what is the artist’s intention here?



“Cut clear, ten feet from the lines, that’s what they require,” he says of the artist, for whom he subcontracts, while not doing things that tree guys prefer to do when they are home, safe, upstate, in the woods. He travels down here for the money, he tells you, which is pretty good because this is, after all, the New Jersey metro area, and upstate is not. Whatever it takes to help make us Energy Strong. And while they’re at it, we’ll get a dash of Stronger Than the Storm.



The certifiable, er, certified mentality of our local utility companies resides in having adopted the righteous rationale that they are, in fact, acting with restraint, because it is their considered opinion that all of the trees adjacent to power lines should go, completely and without delay, in order to protect their infrastructure needs, investments, and exposures (not least of which are those of their underwriters), which, naturally, feed the wave of the future.


This sets the tone for everyone else, though less so in places where trees are rightly valued by people who actually make these policies. Glen Ridge, for example, buries much of its utility lines and keeps them off the streets whenever possible. And they have those nice gas lamps to illuminate their timeless time capsule.


Millburn, and trees? No contest.


And yes, there will always be Horsie Country, where executives go to graze. Space is the place, where they are concerned, and all that openness softens a host of buffer issues, on so many levels, ergo, there are fewer tight spots to navigate. Then there’s the straight up billions which the jet and helicopter set have going for them, that wildcard which enables them to always get it done, and done right, any time and anywhere they choose, and tastefully, if you can account for that.


Billions are always a plus. A big one. For them. And their designers.



Have you ever noticed, by the way, how subtly different the trees look when you cross over from Vermont into New York? In a mere five minutes, the very character of the trees seems to change, but how can that be? I think it is a government thing. They do it differently in the Green Mountain State than they do up in Albany.


No wonder there. That, after all, is the Empire State. While Vermont? Hah! Nuff said.


Here in Jersey, our proud sponsors leave us to ponder this, their latest avant-garde masterstroke, as our roly-poly rockstar Governor reverently unpacks his own specially made devil’s bow, and prepares for his next last shot at the big time. Polling along on decimal points and ever more out of state, he preps to clear his fantasy-addled mind, making fresh room for his best, most candid performance.


That flim-flamminest … that most phantasmagorical. The disarmingly dishonest, and yet strangely taxpayer subsidized. The one, the only …


Doctor C.C.’s “Who Loves Ya?” Republican Tent Revival and Medicine Show!


Give it right up.


Never mind that trees themselves, through both their better known and their sometimes mystical properties of give and take, which go mostly unnoticed by the average bustling hustler, also have the power to enrich and even save us, both from ourselves and for the world. But to whose hands can we hope to entrust this wealth?


Remember, incendiary as they sometimes are, the people at PSE&G are a cut above the likes of JCP&L, who are, themselves, the poster persons of free market and profit hungry systematic neglect, with the one-two combination of cannibalized assets and sagging infrastructure, all jangling in harmony with their high polish and over-the-limit shareholder returns, to prove it.


All night long. 24/7/365.24. Except when it hits the fan.


In the presence of such flamboyant brilliance as this, iconoclastic insights and reinterpretations that challenge our deepest assumptions about the flatness of our earth, it is a comfort to recall that we will always have pleasant diversions, among other more important things to do, and that we can do them, right this moment, with the simple swipe of an icon, and push it all right out of our minds.



Is it, however, further comfort to realize that, all the while and given enough time and right of way, those very things will soon be doing us? Whether we like it or not?


Because they will, if we accede to it, and they will do it right on time, aided by a top tier, custom made program. They will, you can be sure, be quite relentless. And they will be very, very efficient, at least about the really critical things, like maximizing profits and such. Because they know that you don’t want to know what happens when the power dies or the connection gets dropped. That’s when the heads really begin to roll.


But the overtime pay, that ain’t so bad, truth be told. And folks are never so glad to see you as they are when the lights go out across a major section of the grid.


At just such inconvenient moments, and as we permit, we can be most deeply assured that trees will, as they always do, merge with our perception, again, and some, at least, will recover to live whole, full lives, and enjoy their rightful say in the world. And don’t be surprised when more and more people do, as they must, begin to listen, again, and see, with the eyes of a child and a commoner’s heart, the humble, the indomitable, and the sublimely majestic nobility of thee.






  1. Bergen County also suffers from this treachery/treechery.

    Glad to know I’m not the only one troubled by it. What can we do to get a balanced solution?

  2. Big question. As with all things humanly engineered, I suppose we should first take a look at the most recent orthodoxy. Who creates standards and policy? Who writes the textbook? Who designs the test?

    Who forfeits their contract or their position if they do not conform to the mandated requirements?


  3. This is all being promoted and approved by BPU.

    And we pay for the destruction in our electric bills.

    It is an absurd application of a new law passed after the big blackout of 2003, which apparently began with a the falling on a power line.

    “Hazardous trees” are now public enemy #1 – this is insane.

    You should hear the BPU hacks and utility people talk about it – it made me sick to listen to what they say and observe how they think.

  4. My local Tree Committee is just as bad.

    They just massively “trimmed” the tree in front of my house, allegedly to promote vehicles.

    When I complained, they called the police and tried to have me arrested.

    Local tree cut chair later came to my house and tried to tell me they were dong this for my own good, because if a tree fell and hurt somebody, then I was responsible.

    The even claimed they could cut the tree down so I should just shut up.

  5. I dont usually speak for the trees, but these pictures are horrible. What are they thinking!!! It makes the street and community look terrible.

    Bob Braun: Why is it always so easy to do ugly things to an urban landscape?

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