THEY CAME AND planted a tree in front of my house. They came in the morning, without warning, and parked their truck out in front. The dog barked and the men, two of them, got out with a pick and shovel and started digging up the dirt. The orange truck was illegally parked and the traffic had to slow and people came out to watch. Someday the tree will shade my house.

There were two trees in the truck. My tree-it is, after all, my tree-was wrapped in burlap around the roots. It was a skinny thing, seven, maybe eight feet tall with no leaves, not even buds. The man said it was a disease-proof elm. He sort of patted the tree as he said it. Then he attacked the ground with his pick and the earth began to fly.

There were two men. One was short and chubby and the other was big and thin. They worked for the city and they had their routine down pat. One worked the pick and the other worked the shovel. One knocked in the posts to give the tree support and the other watered the ground to make it soft. They did not saying a word to each other. You could tell they have planted many trees in their time.

The tree they were replacing is long gone. Like others on the block, it was felled by disease. All over Washington, the trees are dying. Washington has monuments and government buildings and broad avenues, but it is the trees that give it character. The trees save the city, shelter the city, hide it from the summer sun and chew up the dirty air. In the night, the trees cool the air. There's a spot on Reservoir Road, where it dips into Glover Archbold Park, where the air is always cool. It is the trees that do that.

The old tree that once stood before the house used to cool it. The old lady who preceded us used to climb out on the porch with a hose in the summer and water the tree at dusk, cooling it down. Then the breeze would blow off the tree and into the front bedroom. She slept in the front bedroom. She would not have air conditioning, we were told. She was a true Washingtonian. When it got really hot she went to Europe. Other times she used the tree. I'm not sure who died first, her or the tree.

Down the block the elms still stand tall. There is talk of trying to save them, There is talk of raising money for injections of some chemical into the roots. This has to be done many times and even then it is no sure thing. Even then, the trees may die.

The men from the orange truck were very nice. They hit rock after a foot or two and so they had to use the pick more than they would have liked. They worked hard. They swung the pick and the rock went flying. They cracked it and threw it into the truck. Then they took the tree and took the burlap off and put it gently into the hole. The tall man snipped off a branch for some reason and the shorter man knelt and sort of arranged the branches. Then they replaced the dirt.

No one knows where the tree came from. It has been years since the old tree died-at least three or four. Certainly before my time on the block. When I came there was a stump-just a stump. Soon a little tree started to grow from the stump and I let it grow because I wanted a tree. But the man next door said it would never be a tree so we trimmed it back and it died. Then the city came mysteriously and took out the stump. No one called and no one wrote, but one day, the stump was gone.

Later, the city came and filled the hole. Again no one called and no one wrote, bu the hole got filled. I would come out of the house and ask who had ordered the hole to be filled and the workmen would say "the city." That was that and the hole got filled.A couple of weeks ago, a new crew came and fixed the sidewalk. The old tree had torn up the sidewalk with its roots. Men came and took up the old cement and put down new cement. When I asked who ordered them to do that they said "the city." Then they left.

It is the same with the tree. The tall man explained that when a tree dies, the city replaces it. He made it sound like this is done immediatley and routinely and he could not understand why I asked. He took the can of water and poured water around the tree and told me to do the same about every other day. I promised I would.

"Thank you very much. I sure would appreciate that," he said, as if the tree were his. And then in a possessive manner, he gave it a proud pat and went with the other man to plant the other tree. The dog and I returned to the house, me feeling as if the tree had been taken from me. It's okay. It's just a skinny thing, leafless and wrapped in brown bandage for protection. I know it belongs to the city, but if it's all right with the mayor, I'll water it come Wednesday.