Peter Sagnella

In Hamden, west of Farm Brook Reservoir, is a meadow. Once the meadow belonged to dairy farmer Harold Hansen but the State of Connecticut, having engineered the reservoir as a watershed more than 40 years ago, came to oversee and maintain the property. Butting the northern section of West Rock Ridge, encompassed by hiking and walking trails, the meadow has been a refuge for many over the years.

In one respect, the meadow is anathema to its place: a hilly pasture in a densely populated suburb of a densely populated city. Traverse the meadow in any season, though, and you feel as though you traverse as well our agrarian past. Haying grass still grows, stonewalls rib the woodland. There is silent, open space. And, at the heart of the meadow, high on the second of three slopes that fall gently east, as if placed just so by the hand of God, a bitternut.

I had the fortune of being raised slightly southeast of this meadow. In all seasons, for more than three decades, I walked to and from this tree. Like so many others I admired its beauty, solitude, endurance. With a stout trunk nearly 30 inches in diameter and wide, spreading limbs, the tree was the centerpiece of an archetypal Southern New England landscape: blue gray reservoir, sloping pasture, girdling woodland, rugged trap rock ridge.

As I grew older, the tree became more and more a centerpiece in the landscape of memory. Anytime, anywhere, I could see myself hiking with my parents or siblings past its slender leaves, or splashing by it with neighbors through terraces of snow. I could see myself alone, sitting under it, edified by its girth, watching the sun dip or clouds skate. I could see myself laying with my wife Marika in its shade. I could see myself and my sons forage for nuts: perusing green husks and tan shells, we realized the tree was, in fact, bitternut hickory, not shagbark, and thus produced nuts we’d find unpalatable. For decades, it seemed, I could enter this landscape and walk the hills—the tree would be there.

Tuesday 2 February, however, Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) chopped down this tree. Parts of the crown were dragged to block entrances to footpaths in the southern and northern sections of the meadow. At the meadow’s north terminus, where woodland rises to ridge, sections of the butchered trunk, along with piles of severed limbs, were dropped to block another path. Just beyond these remains a sign currently reads “Trail Moved to Protect Wildlife.”

The public was never formally notified why DEEP cut the tree, nor in what ways doing so would enhance wildlife. Local residents and interested citizens were never given a chance to speak for, or against, the action. Some may have supported cutting the tree for—what one assumes—biological and ecological benefits; others may have protested. But we will never know. (Monday I telephoned DEEP, presented these inquiries, and was assured a return call. That call never came.)

tree 3

By not informing the public of its intent, by not supplying the public with the information necessary to evaluate the action, DEEP has acted despicably and undemocratically. Any explanation offered now, after the fact, is laughable, and the reluctance to offer an explanation prior to the fact hubristic.

The Greeks knew well the sting of hubris. Not believing he was the cause of his people’s suffering, Creon, King of Thebes in Sophocles’ Antigone, loses a son, daughter-in-law, and wife before he humbles himself to culpability. Saturday, sledding in the meadow with my sons, I stopped to count the tree’s rings. Gazing at the stump’s mahogany pith, I traced the loops outward to 91 and, soberly, saw the wisdom of the ancients come round.

Being cut from the roots of democracy grates. But the wound inflicted by DEEP transcends political participation. Sunday I walked as I have hundreds of times across the meadow to the path my parents first showed me three decades ago. Up close I perused sawn sections of the bitternut that blocked the old path. Earthbound now, the logs evoked hacked quarters of a cow, the piles of chopped branches beyond bones. Shocked, bitter, I looked to the meadow. For a split second, bereft of a focal point, I did not know where I was.

Peter Sagnella, an English teacher, lives in Hamden.

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