Last week the old wall to the neighboring garden was torn down. There was a gap at one end, where kids used to climb a wobbly makeshift set of steps to explore the other side. The steps have been carted away and the clematis that used to wind its way along the uneven bricks and burst into pale pink blossoms has been ripped out along with the wall. And now the birch tree is gone and I am distraught. Perhaps losing a tree feels like losing a home for me because, long ago, losing my home meant losing a tree.
There was a cherry tree in the back yard of the house my parents lived in together until I was seven. In the spring the wind would scatter blossoms I pretended were snow; in July my mom would hang a birthday piñata from a low branch; toward the end of the summer my dad would climb up and gather ripe, black cherries in the pockets of an old army jacket. Soon after their divorce the house was sold, and I embarked on the peripatetic experience of growing up in joint custody, wandering back and forth between down-and-out Detroit and cushy Grosse Pointe –two weeks here, two weeks there – in and out of my parents’ diametrically opposed lifestyles. I moved through four schools and ten homes in seven years. I thought of that cherry tree a lot. It seemed to be the thing I had lost.
But back to the birch tree in Berlin. There was absolutely no drama involved in its end. No one bellowed timber! Sap did not gush like blood from the jugular. No final thud reverberated in my bones. Chopping it down was a deliberate and methodical process. First a man with a chainsaw ascended the leafy heights in a boom lift and began severing the branches one by one. Then another man sliced off chunks of the remaining trunk bit by bit, reducing the towering tree into transportable units. I watched from four floors above until I couldn’t stand the orderly progression of it any longer and ran out to buy groceries. But the grim feeling tagged along as I filled the cart with organic goat’s cheese and heirloom tomatoes, a lump in my throat that had to do with watching a living thing die. It was joined by a queasy rumbling, an awareness that, while I was powerless to stop the destruction, I was also intimately linked to the people in charge. We live on the top floor of a building that belongs to my husband and his two partners, architects who have planned a new five-story apartment house for our back yard. Whenever we discussed the project, my husband always focused on how they were adding much needed housing to Prenzlauer Berg, the neighborhood I’ve lived in since I left Detroit for Berlin in 1994. Never one to see the bright side of things, I remain convinced they are taking something of greater value away.
The birch tree had been a magnet for birds – magpies squawking from below while swallows swooped and darted above. It shimmered in the sunlight, offering dappled shade under branches that supported nests as well as swings and the annual birthday piñatas I hung up for my children. But the scraggly maple – also gone by the time I returned from the grocery store – was just an eyesore. Always plagued by aphids, it dripped with honeydew and sprouted rusty nails and rotting planks, the ruins of an ill-conceived and half-finished tree house. Still, it was a tree, offering a burst of chartreuse each spring, the reward after months of darkness.
It’s somewhat heartening to know that two other trees, a huge acacia and a crooked plum, will be allowed to remain in a small strip of garden along the back end of the lot. But will they both survive once the new house blocks out most of the light? I won’t be able to see them after it’s been built anyway.
Every morning I look out the kitchen window hoping it was all a dream. While always wishing to find the garden as it was before the big machines arrived, I also crave the sight of something shocking, some proof of the drastic nature of the change that is underway: a line of aliens filing out of a UFO, perhaps, or maybe a sea of bubbling, red lava. But the mundane ugliness of reality is always confirmed: scattered debris and tools, bulldozer tracks in the mud. Against all odds, a large hosta I planted years ago has been spared the crush of falling masonry.
One day, after dropping the kids at school and stopping at the drugstore, I return to find a forklift idling dangerously close to the hydrangea near the garden door. I am wearing over-priced Lycra pants and toting a bag of toilet paper along with a half-built Lego space ship that was lurching around the backseat of the car. The man at the wheel of the forklift shouts into a cell phone. The shopping bag full of laundry soap and dishwasher tabs grows heavy on my shoulder while I wait for him to finish his call. But once he stops shouting he continues to stare at the display, leaning back in the seat, legs wide. It’s clear he’s waiting for something, too – most likely orders from another man.
“Good morning,” I say. I am eye level with his feet.
He nods from above: permission to speak. I ask about the hydrangea, I’m worried it will be destroyed when they bring in the crane. He tells me they’re going to dig it up and plop it down somewhere else while the foundation is poured. This is news to me – I thought the plan was for the hydrangea to stay put – so I ask who gave the order.
“The architect,” he says after a deliberate pause. End of discussion, as my father used to say.
“Well, I’m the architect’s wife,” I respond, cringing as the words cross my lips. I wanted to say something that would make this man listen to me, but once I’ve said it, I see what he sees: the Lycra, the shopping bag, the space ship. I glance over at the hosta, its broad, jade green leaves covered in dust: a motherless child.
“And what about the hosta?”
He just shrugs. The bored look on his face tells me the house in the garden is a done deal; machinery takes precedence over nature, now. This guy has his orders and certainly isn’t going to be dissuaded by the architect’s wife. She obviously doesn’t pull the strings. She buys the toilet paper.
“Whatever. The crane goes here.”
I leave my bag and the spaceship by the stairs and decide to do what I can: save the hosta. After retrieving a shovel from the basement, I dig a hole in the dark corner under the stairwell windows, a place that no machine can touch. It’s a shady spot, actually better suited to a hosta than the sundrenched strip along the wall. Then I start to extricate the plant from its present home amongst the rubble of the old wall, the excavation growing larger as I follow the pale roots ever deeper and wider.
A few meters away, two men are taking a break. While other men have been creating chaos with their big machines, these two have been doing the dirty work by hand – gathering and sorting the debris. They don’t wear hard hats, overalls and steel-toed boots like the ones who boss them around; they wear cheap leather shoes and hand-me-down street clothes. Along the garden’s back wall, they have created a small space for themselves. The older man cuts cheese and bread with a pocketknife. Their jackets hang in the plum tree, an unwanted gift that has flourished despite a haphazard transplantation years ago.
In German I ask if I can borrow the wheelbarrow they’ve been using to transport the bricks, but they answer with blank faces, not understanding a word.
The younger one shakes his head and points a thumb to his chest. “Syria.”
I motion to the wheelbarrow. The older one nods – as if to say, help yourself – and the younger one gets up to help me. They think I want the bricks. I shake my head, shoveling air and nodding at the hosta and the wheelbarrow. Now they understand, but the older one flashes me a quizzical glance. Why take a plant when you could have bricks?
Now I have a wheelbarrow, but though I’ve loosened the roots completely, I find the hosta is almost too heavy to lift. And it’s all so alive – earthworms writhing from sudden exposure, snails clinging to the back of the broad leaves. Bits of brick and mortar from the wall fall on my feet as I stumble with the weight.
The younger man rushes to my aid, taking the plant in his arms like a newborn child. Or a newborn baby elephant – it’s almost too heavy for him as well. He looks to me for guidance, and I point to the hole I’ve dug. As he staggers toward the hosta’s new home, the older man yells something in Arabic that makes the younger man turn back toward the wheelbarrow. Halfway there he realizes it’s not worth the effort, though, and again he changes direction, darting back toward the new hole.
The older man laughs at this slapstick routine from afar, his finger zigzagging through the air. But the younger man is somber, charged with the weight of his task as he nears the hole I’ve dug. I kneel down to maneuver the roots into place and when he finally lets the hosta drop out of his hands, a gust of air shoots up, dusting both our faces with sandy black soil. I thank him in a language he cannot speak and he nods in return, a warm smile tempered by sad eyes.
As I settle the hosta into its new home, easing loose earth into the gaps between the roots and tamping it down, the man returns to lunch with his partner under the crooked plum tree. Chunks of the maple’s trunk serve as table and chairs. No doubt these men live in some temporary shelter, surrounded by other people in a similarly desperate situation. But here, my wreckage is their refuge. Am I allowed to be upset about losing a garden when so many others have most likely lost everything? I empty a bucket of water over the fresh transplant and watch it soak in.
East Berlin was still riddled with holes when I arrived, a checkerboard of vacant lots and bullet pocked facades, the gaps and imperfect places that left room for young people like myself – foreigners, misfits, bohemians, students. It felt like my city then, and it still does. But I’m a middle-aged mother of two now. The wheels of gentrification have been spinning for some time, and while others are left standing at the bus stop, we have a ticket to ride. I can’t bring myself to see the changes as entirely bad. Collapsing facades used to turn sidewalks into death traps. I used to blow my nose and see soot from coal heating. I had to cycle to West Berlin for exotic things like Romaine lettuce or decent ground coffee. But the streets were empty.
Now, like any other big city, along with better produce and abundant coffee roasters, Berlin has traffic jams and crowded sidewalks, tourists careening around on those annoying rent-a-bikes. And just when you think the market is saturated, another niche gastronomy spore germinates overnight – within walking distance of my apartment is a cookie dough ‘bar’ as well as a Japanese shaved ice ‘lab’ both with vegan options of course.
Property prices in Berlin rose by over twenty percent in 2017 – faster than in any other city in the world – and rents rose by almost fifty percent between 2009 and 2015. A quarter of a million people have moved to Berlin since 2009, and there are 40,000 newcomers every year, many struggling for months to find an apartment. The powers-that-be want the city to become denser again. Despite neighborhood outcry, the permit to build on our garden lot was issued without delay.
A few weeks ago, the woman who lives on the first floor mounted a last ditch protest action anyway, hanging a long banner from her windows facing the street and propping open the front door. Random strangers milled around the garden, grumbling about gentrification and Swabian speculators. I had been against the building from the beginning and still was, but these people were intruding on a private space and I found their Marxist posturing a little naive. This power struggle, like most, is more complicated than the David and Goliath yarn my neighbor was spinning. She introduced me to the angry crowd as the woman who couldn’t save the garden. I don’t know if that’s a step up or down from the architect’s wife. It seemed she was trying to force me to pick a side. But if there’s anything I learned growing up in joint custody – moving back and forth every two weeks between the tiny grungy apartments of a loving and impoverished alcoholic musician and the sprawling suburban home of a distant doctor – it’s that there will be a price to pay no matter which side you pick.
I’m upstairs when the terrible noise starts, a dentist’s drill in surround sound. I lean over the balcony and spot a woman loading the wheelbarrow with birch wood. From above, I shout down to ask what she’s doing and recognize her from the neighboring building. Over the years I’ve tried smiling and waving, but in the all the time she’s lived next door, she’s never said hello.
When my husband and his partners bought our building in the late 1990’s, the house she lives in had yet to be built. There was a garden house on the lot next door, but the front building had been bombed – a flip-flop of our lot, on which the front building remained after the garden house had been destroyed. At some point between the end of World War Two and Germany’s reunification, a birch seedling had taken root on the patch of flattened rubble that would become our garden.
The birch tree loomed and swayed above us for so long, seemingly cool and dry, like some Scandinavian stranger. After it was cut down, my son slipped behind the fence and stole a few freshly severed branches. Now the inert logs – skin-like papery bark wrapped around surprisingly orange rings of growth – lie amongst the board games and books in the kids’ rooms, the disembodied limbs of an old friend. The rest of the corpse has been lying in a heap on the edge of the construction site for a week and my next-door neighbor has decided to help herself.
“You might have asked,” I shout down at her. I’m being petty, of course, but it’s all I can do to keep myself from wailing she’s stealing my dead tree!
“I did ask,” she yells back, gesturing toward the foreman. We are arguing across a distance of four floors, competing with the scream of a circular saw, the drone of a dump truck and a blaring radio. All hits, all the time. I’ve asked them to turn it down but they just nod. The foreman glances up and recognizes me: busybody nature lady.
“I have friends who want that wood,” I say. It’s true. But I know that my neighbor could load her Subaru to the brim and there would still be more than enough for my friends and their tiny wood burning stove.
“It’s all going tomorrow,” the foreman shouts, motioning to the containers on the street. “What’s the problem?”
“It’s not your house,” I yell back, immediately feeling like a fool.I might as well have yelled I want my cherry tree back!
This house I live in is not really mine either, and who knows how long I’ll live here. One thing I do know, however, is that at some point down the road, I’ll profit from the existence of the new building I do not want. In this tale of gentrification I’m on both sides, a tangle of territory, guilt and loss that is familiar. It’s the warp and weft of the fabric of home for me, no matter how I define the word: Mom’s place or Dad’s, a foreign country, a place to watch my children grow up before they leave to start lives of their own. I continue to struggle with the fact that a home is never permanent.
At the end of the day the men leave the construction site and the machines go quiet. The noise has ceased for a spell, but the foreman’s words ring in my ears: it’s all going tomorrow.
BIO: LIZZIE ROBERTS grew up in Detroit and lives in Berlin, where she raises children and collects lint. Her writing has been published in the journal Sand and in the anthologies Home is Elsewhere and Streets of Berlin. She was shortlisted for both The Arkansas International Emerging Writer’s Prize 2018 and The Berlin Writing Prize 2017. Her blog about finding home can be found on lizzieroberts.com