The Ironic Death of a Catalpa Tree
Six months after buying my house, my toilet stopped flushing and I had to call a plumber to clear my sewer pipes. I remember it well, because it happened at Thanksgiving, just days before my Dad died and I went back to Wisconsin for the funeral. Since it was holiday-time, the plumber couldn’t come until after I got home, so I had to resort to squatting on a bucket in the days before I left and for several days after I got back.
Six months later, sometime around spring, it happened again. And then again. Every six months, like clockwork. Back then I had a washing machine and eventually the situation got so bad that every time the washer drained, the water would back up into my bathtub, filling it nearly to the rim. Then it would take days to drain. Same thing whenever I took a shower, with the water coming up to my knees by the time I finished.
This went on for a couple of years and each time the plumber would have to drag his nasty snake through my living room into the bathroom, which is approximately the size of a postage stamp. He also would have to remove the commode and then attempt to reset it, somewhat level, on the even-back-then not-so-solid bathroom floor. Each time he came, he had to use thicker shims and sometimes two wax rings.
This was a long time ago, but if memory serves me, the plumber was as frustrated and mystified as I was as to what exactly was causing the recurring blockage. Tree roots were certainly suspect, but no product I put down the pipes ever worked, usually because it needed to be flushed and by the time it became a problem, the toilet wasn’t flushing. Eventually, I learned that one of the warning signs was a burping sound in my pipes that signaled an upcoming service call, but even with proactive treatment, there didn’t seem to be a chemical on the planet that could do the job. The plumber even went so far as climbing up on my roof to make sure my plumbing air vent wasn’t clogged with a dead squirrel or a bird’s nest.
After three years or so, the plumber got tired of tearing up my bathroom and suggested that I have clean-out lines installed so they could work from outside. It necessitated having a backhoe dig a trench down to the lines and then having service pipes installed from the sewer line up to ground level, one leading back to the house and one leading to the street. This was not a cheap proposition, but it was justifiable because it would also permit an inspection of the sewer line itself to make sure some part of it had not become damaged. I think that particular “solution” bought me a year before I had to call the plumber back.
This went on for years. Meanwhile my roof was leaking and falling apart, my electrical system was going haywire, my computer blew up and my car broke down. I was supporting myself, plus Damien and the dogs and the cats. I was in debt to my eyeballs, living way beyond paycheck-to-paycheck, so all repair work stopped. No more computer repairs (which meant no residual income from my nutrition business); no more car repairs (which meant no residual income from my computer tutoring business).
No plumbing. At all. No water would go down the pipes without eventually backing up into the bathtub. My life began to revolve around buckets. A bucket to dump dish water into, or cooking water after making a pot of pasta. Many buckets to catch many drips from many leaks in the roof. Big buckets in which to do laundry, by hand. A bucket to dump wash water into after taking a sponge bath, which is all I could do during the winters. One winter, I even joined the YMCA for a few months just so I had a place to shower. In the summers, it was a dip in the kiddie pool, or it was an outdoor shower, built on wooden pallets one year in my backyard by a “tenant” of my barn; another year my shower was my roof-less laundry room where I had hot water (for one week before the hot water heater blew its heating element). I began to stockpile slotted spoons, used for scooping from the toilet into a bucket layered with newspapers and cat litter.
This is how I (we) lived for 5 years or so. That back-to-nature lifestyle I had dreamed of had finally come true, a thousand-fold.
I’ll never forget the day it all changed, starting with my “dismissal” from Walmart, which necessitated the complete and final discontinuation of my financial support for Damien. I received a sizable severance check, which I was able to eventually use (in June of 2013) to replace the laundry room roof (the worst source of leaks due to its adjacency to the kitchen, utility room and second bedroom). On the same day that the roofers arrived, so did my new plumber, who fixed the water heater and my stopped-up pipes, yet again. I really didn’t have any delusion about it being a permanent fix, but I was seriously tired of living like a hillbilly (I mean that in the nicest way possible :-) ). My plumber recommended a new root-killer product (conveniently available at Walmart for $20.00 a bottle, but worth a try), which I immediately bought and used in my now-flushing toilet.
About a month later, my back-door neighbor asked me about my catalpa tree. “What happened?” he asked. “I noticed all the bark is gone.”
I hadn’t noticed. Upon inspection of the tree, I discovered it to be stripped naked from the ground to about five feet up its trunk. I found strips of bark strewn all over the ground under the tree, which coincidentally hovers majestically (70 feet or more) above my clean-out pipes (and my house). The next-door neighbors have mowed over the pipes more than once, destroying the pipe covers, leaving them exposed to falling debris and wayward small animals. I’ve repeatedly tried covering them to no avail.
A couple of days later, as I was sipping a glass of wine on my front porch and mourning the passing of the catalpa, I saw the two neighbor kids stabbing the tree with an assortment of iron rods, knives and other boys’ toys. I was in a mood. I approached them and gave them a stern lecture.
“How would you like it if someone ripped off all your skin? That tree’s bark is its protection from disease and insects and death. When it dies, you better hope it falls on your house and not mine. I think you should do an extra-credit research project for school.”
They looked at me like I was crazy, but they apologized.
Two days later, my pipes burped. Then my toilet stopped flushing. I wasn’t expecting a permanent fix, like I said, but it had been only two weeks, maybe three, since the last plumber visit. I didn’t even have the bill paid. Imagine my surprise (?) to discover that the tree bark that had formerly adorned the ground was now stuffed into my clean-outs. Really? Really. I proceeded to pull out what I could, but some pieces were jammed in beyond my reach. I was out of my mind with anger and hostility and paid the neighbors yet another visit and then called the plumber again.
That was two years ago. I have triumphantly covered the pipes yet again, this time with coffee cans topped with heavy rocks and surrounded by strong, tall trellises. My toilet flushes flawlessly (most of the time) and I haven’t put root killer down my pipes since last October, saving the last empty bottle to someday pass on to the new homeowners. The catalpa is dead which makes me want to cry. But it’s still standing and at least I no longer have to deal with its copious white blooms which shed like so much cotton, and its seed pods which I collected in boxes when I first moved here because they are strange and unique and were destined for an arts and crafts project of some sort.
The ironic death of a catalpa tree. I could draw many parallels to my life with this story; astute, analytical readers could probably do that for themselves, also, if they were so inclined. What I know for a fact is that if this tree (which should have far outlived me and the careless neighbors) falls on my house, I will get over $100,000 in an insurance payout, assuming I’m not asleep in bed when it happens. Then I should probably get the boys a thank you gift.