The Flight

John Jeremiah Sullivan

I often think about this thing that happened in my neighborhood ten years ago.
My old friend Si and I were upstairs in the study, talking and strumming guitars.
Si is one of the best guitar players I have ever heard but never records anything.
I oscillate between giving him grief about that and thinking it’s sort of beautiful.
His half-songs are some of my favorite songs, but he never really finishes them. Anyway, I was listening to him, when we started to hear strange noises outside.
We went to the window and parted the blinds and saw big trucks on the street.
One truck had a “cherry picker” on it. They had come to trim or cut down trees.
It was one tree, as it turned out, a gigantic oak in my next-door neighbor’s yard.
Easily two hundred years old, it was the tallest and broadest tree on our street.
The thought that it would not be standing when I die had never occurred to me.
But the parks and landscaping department had determined that it was diseased.
We have hurricanes here. If the tree were blown down, it could flatten a house.
We watched three tree men climb up the trunk in an even, early-afternoon light.
Or one climbed, one stood in the cherry-picker basket, and one sat operating it.
The work went on for six hours. It took half a day to deconstruct two centuries.
They sawed off all the branches, down to the limbs, and dressed the tree stark.
That was first. Then they took the smaller limbs. It stood there naked and thick,
As if these had been its bones or truest body. That’s when we heard the boom.
Felt it, rather, and heard it, too, the sound of a big oak limb hitting the ground.
One after another they dropped them—BOOM! Each time the windows rattled,
And the floor vibrated. You could tell how much biomass was hitting the street.
At some point, amid those little quakes, we started to hear these other sounds.
The men shouted at each other, not just commands but higher-pitched chatter.
They had been quite workmanlike, but now something unusual was happening.
We strained to make out their words above the buzzes of the saws and engines.
There were little exclamations. “Ho! See him that time?” And all would go quiet.
“Right there,” I heard one say. “That’s the nest.” He gestured with his chainsaw.
We couldn’t tell what they were talking about at first—a nest of birds? Hornets?
It was Si who heard them say, “Flying squirrel.” The tree had flying squirrels in it.
Glaucomys volans, the southern variant. They live here, but you never see them.
Flying squirrels move at dusk or in the night and seldom are seen, yet numerous.
That was a sentence that ran in the local Morning Star in the mid-winter of 1953.
They make a home in holes hollowed out by other animals, mostly woodpeckers. People liked to keep them as pets and would even cut down trees to catch them. Glaucomys, I read, is Latin for “blue-gray mouse.” Obviously volans means “flying.” They don’t really fly, of course. They glide. Their skin flaps stretch, and they glide. They make themselves into paper airplanes and slide through the air in the trees.
They make themselves into their own parachutes and artfully slow their descents. Supposedly they can travel more than one hundred and fifty feet on a single ride.
God knows how many generations of these creatures had been raised in the tree.
It may have been like a city to the flying squirrels, this oak, an ancestral mansion.
One particular squirrel was proving a devilment to the tree men, rushing at them.
A mother—her kits were still in the nest, and the nest lay exposed on the ground.
She was freaking out and refusing to leave the tree. She scampered up and down.
The tree had become a spike that stuck straight up sixtyish feet into the blue sky.
She raced to the top and knew she was trapped and squatted there on the spike.
The men stood on the ground and gazed at her with a kind of amused admiration.
Si and I watched it all from the open window. He had taken out his camera-phone. Memory says we could see her trembling, but we would have been too far away.
There was an instant like an inhalation, and then she launched herself into the air.
It was amazing how slowly she seemed to move during the few seconds airborne.
She landed in the middle of the street and froze there, seized up on the concrete. Probably she had managed for her entire life to avoid having to land on that shit.
One of the men went over to her, bent down, and bothered her with his helmet.
She sort of grudgingly let herself be nudged off the street and into some bushes.
I like to imagine she managed to collect her kits again and set up in another tree,
But who can say—the experience of displacement may have been too traumatic.
The men made a cut at the base of the tree and, higher up, put a chain around it.
The other end was hooked to a vehicle, which slowly backed away from the tree.
The trunk cracked and came down hard on the street like a statue being toppled.
That made the biggest sound of all. Everything shook. Some car alarms went off.
The last thing they did was chainsaw the oak into slices, load it, and haul it away.
Si and I were both pretty much stunned by the whole thing. Neither of us spoke.
Every few years I ask about the video, but he says it’s lost or on an old computer, Which is hilarious because that’s exactly what he always tells me about his songs.

John Jeremiah Sullivan is a writer for The New York Times Magazine. His work appears there and in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other publications. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he co-founded the non-profit research initiative Third Person Project.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022

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