The Tree Poacher

We all admired Stevie Wilkins.

As our group approached the dreaded four-oh, we had all embraced the great wheel of life and found our little cogs. We had lawyers, a senior partner in a well to do accounting firm, a realtor who seemed impervious to the whims of the economy, and even a big time doctor, little Jimmy Tann, who, admittedly, had left the group and moved out to Chicago. We only heard from him a couple days before Christmas when he sent a group text wishing everyone well. We didn’t really like little Jimmy Tann anymore.

Even I had managed to amount to something, despite my meager BA in history. Tooth and fucking claw, mind you, but I had managed to carve out a niche that kept the wolves from the door and the wine well-stocked on the shelf.

But Stevie Wilkins wasn’t a cog in the wheel. He didn’t even bother with college, and it was rumored that he left high school without a diploma, though we only entertained such trash talk for the sake of reinforcing our snobbiness. Stevie was the estate manager for a private park in Potomac. 67 acres of woodland and volunteer-maintained trails run by a council of shockingly wealthy retirees in the name of some conservationist from an era before conservationists were cool. The money came from a small membership of equally well-to-do blue hairs, and mostly from a mysterious trust that was about 90 years old. As the Maryland suburbs boomed and bustled all around this bizarre oasis, it faded into a sort of Brigadoon-style status. There was a little Eastern Shore chic crushed shell driveway that led back to an old manor house nestled in center of the 67 acre wood. From the road, this only access looked like a private driveway. You wouldn’t even think to turn up it and investigate, but you could, from dawn to dusk on weekdays, and weave your way into Maryland of the 1910’s. The manor house was big, cold, and empty, maintained by a Spanish family who drove up twice a week to vacuum, scrub, and repair whatever was needed. A much more comfortable guest house, settled farther back into the woods, was where Stevie and his family lived. His job was part security – patrol the 67 acres on a golf cart or, because Stevie was a little touched, his daughter’s pink bicycle to make sure nobody snuck onto the property at night. In Potomac, this threat was mainly realized in the form of kids smoking dope and fooling around, though there was always the occasional nutter to warrant the baseball bat that Stevie carried tucked into a homemade scabbard. Mostly, though, Stevie just blasted music as he biked along the paths and clearings in the early AM. A big man on a pink bike with a boombox duct taped to the handlebars blasting 80’s long-hair rock was enough of a deterrent for the soft underbelly of upper class suburban ne’er-do-wells.

Stevie, in 15 years as the estate manager, had a reputation among the local youth. I imagine it’s not hard to become something of a bogeyman when the teller of the story is a kid stoned out of his mind at 2:30am who saw a six foot three, 200 pound man on an absurd child’s bike riding through the glen emitting a rebel yell and swinging a bat. Needless to say, Stevie had never had an altercation with the poor children of Potomac. He probably never even saw them as they ran breathlessly through the woods to vault the fence separating the insane private oasis from the civilized world.

The rest of Stevie’s job was general maintenance. He had to mow the lawn around the old manor house. This involved standing on the back of one of those scarily-fast mowers that they use on highway verges and seem like they’d happily chew up car tires as easily as grass and brush. Stevie wore big noise-cancelling headphones and basically concentrated only on the two feet in front of the mower, swerving madly just inches from major obstacles, and god forbid anyone was taking a stroll nearby or having a picnic.

He’d also plow the road, clear up any trees that had fallen across it or the various paths, and generally make sure everything remained as it should be. The point of the park, according to the strange council of elders, was to maintain the 67 acres as a “natural area”. The three acres of lawn was the only manicured part of the property (and Stevie had planted wildflowers and a few ornamental trees that he was queerly proud of), so even having one full time staff person seemed excessive. The Spanish cleaners were probably all that was really required to keep up the lawn and road, but I suppose security was probably an issue as the octogenarian council sat and watched the world devolve into an iPod, Taylor Swift, methamphetamine hellhole.

Stevie pulled down about 25k a year (plus free housing and insurance) when he started and, each year, threatened to leave unless the council (which he theorized was sitting on “hundreds of millions”) gave him a 10% raise. So he’d steadily risen in 15 years, popping out two kids with his strange wife (who we rarely ever saw off of the park) and seeming to be happier than a pig in shit. The man worked outside all day, and had no real bosses. The council met in the manor house once a year and, otherwise, a few members appeared sporadically in the park in a non-official bird-watching capacity. I’m sure they had eyes around to make sure Stevie wasn’t running a pot farm or a terrorist training camp or something, but, as long as all remained status quo, Stevie said he never heard from them. A phone call now and then if there was a bad storm and, once, when Stevie fired one Spanish family for not doing the job and hired another Spanish family, three of the eight council members came by to stare down their noses at the silent, fearful Nicaraguan clan that Stevie picked – fat little wife, tall and stoic husband, a sister, and three kids in ballcaps. Stevie says the councilmembers merely stared and made little cooing noises to each other like some sort of colonial lordly types enlisting pygmies to help defend some far away fort.

Stevie’s paychecks arrived in the mail every two weeks, written in a shaky hand and drawn off of the Worthington Family Trust Fund. None of us could find any details online, and Stevie claims that he never asked. “Just send checks!” he’d crow.

When the eldest of his two kids hit the three year mark (we were all invited to the park late on a Sunday night for a birthday party where the kid was asleep in the guest house and we all got moderately smashed around a barbecue pit beside the guest house), something in Stevie changed. What we had all assumed was a natural and incurable lack of ambition seemed to dissolve overnight and Stevie began to use the park’s equipment for a lucrative side business plowing driveways, mowing lawns, and removing fallen limbs and trees. Stevie the landscaper and plow master (he plowed all of our driveways and mowed our lawns) was a busy man, as opposed to the man we all knew who used to be there waiting for us at happy hour (and drunk in a way that told us he’d been there for at least five hours). Now he showed up late, grease and grass stained, and drank lightly, talking of strange and complicated self-taught landscaping tricks.

When his eldest was 10, Stevie started to sell the park, tree by tree. Stevie’s house had a lovely wood stove, and he fed it all the scrap wood from the property, taking only what had fallen. For some time, it was a Zen-like mission each day to wander the 67 acres and cart back fallen wood. Stevie would head off into the woods for hours with the little service golf cart, returning with load after load and then chopping or breaking it up. This eventually graduated, as he got older, into taking the park’s battered pickup truck down the paths and filling up the bed. Then one of us (Mike the accountant, who had a second home up near Friendsville, MD with a wood stove) offered to buy a truck load. Mike was the first of many customers. Stevie would fill up the bed of the pick-up as high as it could safely go on the highway and deliver the wood for $150 a pop. Soon, there were no fallen trees left on the property and Stevie conned the council into having a “tree doctor” come in to evaluate the property’s trees. The tree doctor said that many of the trees were reaching the end of their lifespan, and so would need to be replaced. The council happily shelled out money for saplings to be planted in anticipation of future tree loss, and Stevie took care of all the details. Then, without the council’s permission, Stevie began to take down older trees, chop them up, and sell them by the truckload.

On a 67 acre wooded lot that has been allowed to go wild for the better part of 100 years, no one really noticed the occasional tree go missing. If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone besides Stevie hear it? No, they don’t. And Stevie’s unmonitored and erratic day-to-day activities meant that even the casual spies for the council – if they existed – probably wouldn’t put two and two together. Stevie chopping wood was just doing what he had always done. Maybe cleared a tree from some distant part of the paths. Stevie carting off wood – or vanishing with the plow and the lawn equipment – wasn’t ever commented on. And perhaps it was perfectly normal, anyway. Stevie’d been doing it for a decade nearly, all his side-customers paid him in cash, and nothing went missing. In fact, Stevie rarely billed the council for expenses, except general upkeep. Stevie was very frugal, which he blamed on his Scottish blood (something we had in common and, though both 300 years removed from that former homeland, it was better than saying we were just a couple of cheap shits). The council understood the need to keep the trucks and mowers and equipment running, so rarely questioned the minor bills that came in. Stevie was a tinkerer, anyway, and would rather repair than buy new. The council had gone through a mad spree about 20 years ago and bought three of everything, so Stevie could cannibalize.

Stevie estimated, as his eldest child now moved into her teens, that he had saved up enough to get her a full ride in college through to PhD at any school of her choice in the world. She was a studious kid, too, and Stevie proudly declared that she could go Ivy League, or hop over to Oxford, or whatever. He’d squirreled away enough cash from his side gigs to never have to worry again. But it was never enough, he confided drunkenly to me one night. The great downfall of every scam artist is greed. He continued selling the property’s trees, and he started to outsource the work. Three years ago, Stevie hired on a staff – a tall, insane Dane who appeared to take no sustenance besides vodka and Mountain Dew, and two Nicaraguans (probably of the same clan as the cleaning staff). While Stevie sat on the balcony of his guest house sipping fine wines, this tiny army of probably illegal, cash-only staff took down trees, chopped them up, mowed the lawns, drove the plows, made the deliveries, and even did his laundry and cooking.

There was a minor kerfuffle after the big storm last year that took down a bunch of the trees. Fearing the worst, the council gathered and viewed the property. They’d apparently caught Stevie chopping up the fallen giants and issuing delivery orders to his staff. Stevie managed to talk his way around it – carting the wood off to his sister’s house in Annapolis, all above board. Don’t want it piling up on the property and looking weird. The staff? That insane Dane who never speaks and is missing three teeth was his buddy visiting for the holidays. And he’d needed the cleaning staff (they all looked the same to the geezers on the council, no doubt) to help out because Stevie had wrenched his shoulder working overtime to cope with the storm damage…oh, and, about time for the raise, right?

The council has their suspicious members, though. Last month, in what I believe may be the beginning of the end, one of the council members approached Stevie and asked him about the felling of trees, and the now almost constant and factory like chopping of, stacking up, preparation, and delivery of the wood. Where was it all going? Stevie shocked me when he quoted the council member as saying “I’ve noted about 17 loads leaving a day.”

So, assuming Stevie was still charging the same prices, he was pulling down $2550 a day just in wood deliveries. Factor in the landscaping business, which we had figured long ago to be making him 100k a year, and the plow business that was insanely lucrative when there was snow (Stevie had a “contract” with 47 churches in Montgomery County to clear their parking lots, and they paid him in cash at the start of each year for the service). During darker moments in my work week, I often thought of Stevie making a million in cash every year, and some of us joked – occasionally with a worrying note of sober seriousness – that we should go raid his house. Sitting up there alone on the dark and quiet 67 acres, it would be the perfect heist. Stevie was the sort who, some of us imagined, didn’t use a bank. The cash was probably stacked under the floorboards and lining the walls or something. Though I figured he was probably making modest, regular ATM deposits. Slowly inflating some account somewhere. Stevie was too paranoid to sit on a mound of cash. I knew from long ago that he greatly feared a housefire destroying everything he owned. Though, occasionally, I wondered if Stevie maybe just buried the cash across the park, and imagined him, squirrel-like, planting million dollar jars throughout the woods.

Anyway, when caught out by that observant council member last month, Stevie pulled out his ace card. He accused phantom “illegal tree salvagers” of “poaching trees” from the property. He told us the story at the last happy hour and it had us roaring for most of the night. Tree poachers! Only in the fantasy land of the park would such an explanation work.

Stevie was clearly worried, though. His wood deliveries have slowed down, and he called several of his plow contracts this year and said he was retiring. The trust’s council was, of course, dying out. Slowly but surely the ones who had hired Stevie 15 years ago were being replaced. In most cases, the replacements where near identical blue hairs, as clueless as their predecessors. But two young women had come onto the council, inheriting seats from their grandparents. One was clearly brainless (Stevie had a great story about watching her try to turn her Mercedes around in the manor house’s large drive and managing to hit just about everything in sight, including the side of the house), but the other was one of those busy-body types. Having been in the non-profit world for 20 years, I knew them well. The young troublemakers who sweep into the laid back office and immediately try to apply real-world changes to the woefully broken system. It starts small – we can do this better, we can upgrade to a computer system that isn’t 22 years old, we can actually keep this insane mountain of moldy records on this program called Excel. Heard of it? No? What are you all staring at?

There’s usually a quick turnaround with these people. They come in, spend a year trying to change things for the better, are appalled by the lack of motivation (or, even, life) from the powers that be, and either lose their spirit entirely or flame out dramatically one day and vanish. You can spot them from day one. There’s a frenetic sort of OCD thing about them, or perhaps a fear of failure. It never occurs to them that, if they actually were as smart and efficient as they believed themselves to be, they wouldn’t be wasting their time at some little non profit making 15k less than their opposite number in the private sector. It never occurs to them that their meddling isn’t welcome and, simply, cannot work. The problem isn’t the fact that the computers are run by hamster wheels, or that the water-logged basement is full of salary records going back to 1890, or that there’s a better way to do anything. We don’t care. The non-profits – especially the tiny ones – are a bastion for the failures, the drop-outs, and the dangerously broken members of society. We’re there because – and solely because – we cannot function in the normal world. Either we’ve chosen not to, as some sort of demented defiance, or we’re so deeply fucking insane nobody will hire us and we can only ever work somewhere where no one will fire us unless we show up one day with a Bushmaster and a black trenchcoat.

I hate the do-gooder meddlers who try to change the way their tiny non-profit is run. Sometimes they’re housewives trying to keep busy, sometimes they have some dark past that has brought them to this sub-world of despair, and sometimes they’re just well-meaning young idiots who don’t realize how the world works because they were raised with several silver spoons jammed up their bleached assholes.

They always create more trouble than their lives are worth and, long after they leave, whatever half-assed idea they had to make things work better lingers on like some sort of terrible, judging ghost. Oh, that’s the database that so-and-so set up five years ago…no one knows how it works and it’s broken but that’s all we have now so good luck.

When I encounter them at my office, I usually tell them the above observations within weeks of their arrival. Because I think the bosses of non-profits are all like the Worthington Family Trust council and in the grips of late-stage dementia and all the employees are spineless cretins, two classes of people unable to stand up to what is, when all is said and done, pure bullying from these young and dumb changers and shakers.

So here’s this bitch (as Stevie calls her) on the park’s council poking her nose around. The tree poacher story backfired, slightly, when she involved the police. For the past month, a squad car has made a point of driving through the property at night, spotlight on, on the lookout for tree poachers. This is, of course, much to Stevie’s dismay. He tries to keep his anger quiet but the truth is that, despite his Potomac address, and weekly forays to our happy hour spot in the city, Stevie might as well be living on the Mesa in New Mexico – off the grid, outside the law, and surviving off of stashed cash and a wacky barter system. The nightly tree poacher patrols onto his 67 acre fortress has really messed with his chi, if you will. He’s hoping the cops will get bored and, we’ve all assured him, they probably will. Especially if he fucking stops poaching trees!

But I know Stevie. He and I have the occasional off-night happy hour alone. For a few years, he was brewing beer on the property, and I’d spin by his house and risk being creeped out by his stalking, quiet, House of Usher-esque wife. I also brought the occasional girl to the property for untoward activities, back in the day, and that would require alerting Stevie lest we find ourselves running from a crazed, bat-wielding psychotic on a pink children’s bike with playing cards stuck in the spokes. Trust me. You never want to be in those woods on a dark night.

Stevie confides in me a bit more than the other guys. He’s worried that the world is changing. That his oasis is shrinking (and not because he’s brutally raping it) and that age is catching up with him. Hell, it is with all of us, I suppose. Six months ago, taking out a giant oak to sell on the woodstove black market, Stevie actually did wrench his shoulder. Yet another sign of things to come.

Also, he was worth tens of millions in gold bullion or whatever and, maybe, should buy an abandoned village in the Andes and go properly insane. That was his plan, and, when I jokingly asked if I could join him, he’d just get all serious and quiet. Which makes me wonder if he’s gone ahead and bought the getaway breakdown property and it’s on standby for the day after the doctor says he has to stick something up Stevie’s ass.

Stevie sees young people on the trust’s council and interprets it as the harbinger of apocalypse. He knows the non-profit world the same as I do, and he fears the young people will squander the money. It’s one thing to steal the trees, he says, defensively, on our private happy hours. He’s not clear-cutting the land, he’s putting in saplings, he’s taken trees long ago earmarked for death and decay by the scammy-sounding “tree doctor.” He says that he “never takes from the same patch,” whatever that means. Breaking up the pattern I guess. Protecting the house from storm damage here, clearing a path there, sneaking out a big old sycamore there… “It happens. Trees fall.” He told me once, grinning mischievously. But he’s not hurting the land, as far as he’s concerned. Certainly, as far as you or I would notice, everything’s fine on the park. It’s a vast track of politely wild forest. It’s lovely. Though, having hiked those paths for 15 years, I have noticed that the trees are thinning out a bit. Perhaps just because I know what’s happening, but I suspect that the young bitch on the council has noticed the same thing and is far enough away from Alzheimer’s to put two and two together.

Since she’s moneyed, and on a shockingly ineffective council, she’s not likely to vanish, either. In fact, she’s more likely to dominate. And, once you put power in the hands of someone like that, Stevie believes (and I concur) that things can go south fast. First they’ll improve the road, then more paths, then dress up the house and figure out how to make the property bring in income (which is a childish dream shared by all non profits). Then, after a century, surely the trust is going down instead of up… What is the mission? There’s no website. Nobody knows. But all it takes is a perfect storm of economic downturn and maybe some sort of property-related setback (and, perhaps, Stevie being just Too Weird) for a new regime to say, hey, this ain’t working. Next you know (and the property is not protected by the historical society or the parks department, remember), they start to parcel off land. I’ve seen that before, near where I grew up. Vast pristine acreage that was the Terabithia of my youth now home to a thousand single family homes, packed side by side, and filled with transplants and fuckwits.

I can’t imagine what the park is worth. That much acreage in one of the nation’s most affluent neighborhoods? God.

People like the young bitch look for the weak spots. And Stevie is a weak spot. What does he do, exactly? You don’t really need security. Especially with uber-responsive cops. Maintenance is being handled by the Spanish.

But, I tell him, don’t let it get your goat. Even if it all comes tumbling down, he’ll be okay. There’s this tendency, it seems, for all of us to become a bit maudlin as we veer towards 40. Two of us have hit that age already, and it’s nearly broken them. A new breed of passive-depressive midlife crisis seems to infect my generation. We don’t go crazy and get toupees and fast cars, we just quietly withdraw into ourselves and take long, hard looks at our souls. For many of us, we find a great emptiness. Our best years (or so we believe) whittled away in corporate hell, inching from paycheck to paycheck, wasting away through retail therapy, childless, fearful of having to replace a dead car, unhappy at work, unhappy with ourselves. Everyone must eventually ask those questions, I suppose. Stop and examine their lives. Turning 40 doesn’t bother me but, then, I long ago lost all hope. I guess I should thank my parents for teaching me to (a) regret everything and (b) live with it until the bitter, horrific end…which will come soon enough.

Not that I’m depressive. Like I said earlier, I’m happy with the handholds I’ve managed to dig out of the side of the cliff. Whatever, right? But, whether in a grim period of self-examination and breakdown, or cheerfully embracing despair and the march of time as a way of life, the fact is that we all really do admire Stevie. But I wonder what it means for the next cycle of life if we lose Stevie. If the new world we are all complicit in creating does push him out. Is it just age? The passing of the misfits, the rise of maturity? Or are we all building to some sort of apocalyptic head? An apocalypse of high rise apartments that go for $3000 a month, and oceans of single family homes, and dogs that wear sweaters, and transplants who don’t check their blindspots when they drive, and bartenders who hesitate to serve boisterous people, and $20 cheeseburgers, and the undying, always-invading whim of gentrification?

I think we all admired Stevie Wilkins because he represented the slowly dying light of our youth. The fields we used to play in, the scams we ran, the things we got away with. It’ll be sad to see him go.

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