With clipboard in hand, and a gnome hiding under my beard, I “inspected” the large red maple behind the Carthage family house. “The kids affectionately call it Grandpa. It’s so old,” Mrs. Carthage said, standing beside me. “It’s beautiful in the Fall. But I want to remove it. With this free inspection, can you check the tree for disease, or danger, or rot?” I felt the gnome growling under my beard and I cleared my throat. I told her, Yes, I could do it today with supplies in my truck and went to get them. “It is not rotting!” Bombas Dreadnettle blasted under my beard. “And since when is old a reason to get rid of something?” Where would I even start with that? “Let’s just stick to the plan.” I opened up the truck and the other two gnomes jumped into my tool belt. “Are you guys ready?”
[ Two days ago, these three gnomes accosted me in my garden as I was struggling to get the weeds out and my shriveled carrots and potatoes to grow. “We need your help!” they cried. I knelt down to talk to them. “Our home is about to be cut down.” They said there were nearly sixty gnomes that would be displaced if the red maple were cut down. “We don’t know what to do.” I asked if they had thought to talk to the homeowners. “We didn’t think that was safe either. We would be telling them where we live!” I understood. “Do they have kind children?” Sometimes a kid could be a good advocate for a Hidden. “You be our advocate.” They leapt up and down, “You be our advocate! You be our advocate!” Okay, okay. I would see what I could do. One of them touched my hand, “We promise to help you with your garden. You are not that good with gardens,” they said sincerely. Ow. “You don’t have to.” Oh but they would! Gladly! “And bake you gnome berry bread!” Yes, they said, yes. Fresh berry bread, all I could eat, and garden help, If only I could save their home. ]
I carried them over to the Red Maple, and we had privacy, though I kept looking behind me to see if she were there. I told her I would need an hour at least. I had to do some careful measurements and take samples. I pointed to Bombas, “Exact age! Go!” Moved to Filchbatter Thistlewaite, “I need the report of your team on the lateral extent of the roots! Go!” And finally, Xaltor Feroza, “I need the complete shelter records from your archives, and a current survey—no matter if it’s bird or bug or worm. Who’s living here? Go!” They had one hour for their teams. Gnomes don’t dig; they pass through earth and wood like air and I watched them phase into the tree. I went back to the truck and pulled out our Gnome Acclimation Box.
Later, when the gnomes had gathered far and wide and deep all the data I asked them to, I brought the Carthages out to the tree, now surrounded with ceramic garden gnomes. “Where did these come from?” Mrs. Carthage asked. I said, I needed a little help collecting data, and I brought in the specialists. Mr. Carthage made a weird face. I picked one up and told them that these ceramic gnomes could monitor the health of their tree—they had built in monitors. They thought that was clever, if kitschy. “So, about Grandpa. Your tree is the oldest tree for more than twenty blocks. It’s about 431 years old.” Mr. Carthage’s jaw dropped. I added, “…and it’s in very good health. Most of the trees of your neighborhood are relatively young—they’re tall, but they aren’t thick. Grandpa is doing the muscle work for cleaning out the carbon dioxide in your neighborhood.” She said, “One tree?” I nodded. “One old tree can do the work of 50 trees.” I might have been exaggerating, but we had a home to save. “Filtering your air quality. Grandpa cleans the air for everyone in your neighborhood. The young trees won’t be able to do the work it does if you remove it. Now, your roots,” I flipped to a map on my clipboard and circled in red the extent of the lateral root structure. It covered two blocks in any direction. “These roots are touching roots of trees on all these blocks. Roots communicate, share resources, and old trees teach younger trees how to adapt to change in the neighborhood.” They looked at each other. She said, “You’re saying our tree is teaching other trees?” I nodded. “Yes, I am. Now, your tree is also home to a number of –”
“Stop there,” Mr. Carthage was done. “Who are you really?” Too long of a pause, as I searched for what to say. Then a voice from around the tree spoke, “Well, shit!” The Carthages jumped backward. “Now everyone’s gonna have to move out—twenty families, lots of birds, squirrels, a possum…” He leaned his red-hatted head against the trunk, “Fuzzybuttons will be so upset.” I turned to the couple, and breathed, “You have a lovely community of gnomes in your red maple, Mr and Mrs. Carthage. They don’t know what to do to stop you from cutting down the tree. So they came to ask me to help them. They were afraid if they told you where they lived, you would you tear down the tree anyway.” Mrs. Carthage looked suddenly concerned as if she didn’t want to be known like that. I knelt down and brought Bombas up to eye level with the Carthages. “I may not know trees, but I know gnomes.” Mrs. Carthage smiled. “Gnomes are very good for a garden. They do a lot to encourage your flowers to grow strong,” and I pointed over to her blue phlox and her chrysanthemums. “They keep the soil loamy, and they don’t take from the environment. They are the best little hidden workers a garden could have and this is why your garden is so alive.” Bombas said, “Your phlox was lazy! But that was because the soil was weak. We fixed that.” Xaltor called up, “Tell her about the gardenias!” He looked at Mrs. Carthage, “Do you remember the gardenias?” She said, “They all died. I never knew why.” Bombas put his hat in his hand. “There were too many planted all together in the same place—and soil got moldy. We tried to save them, but we couldn’t. Frankly, there are some toxic things in your garden,” he said. He pointed a little gloved finger across the yard, “If you want to get rid of a tree—that Black Walnut over there is assailing your buttercups.” Mrs. Carthage reached out her hand, “Would you want to–,” and Bombas walked over to her across the bridge of my arm, “—I’d love to,” and off they went talking about Mrs. Carthage’s garden, and a trail of ten gnomes followed them. Mr. Carthage and I looked at each other. He smiled. “I think they’re going to be fine here,” he said. “She’s always wanted someone to talk to about gardening.”