On Trees, Chain Saws, and Axes

My house is on a wooded lot. It was a mess of cherry, ash, maple, and thick underbrush. The only way to get through it was to crawl through the poison ivy. The neighbors from the adjoining subdivision had taken to dumping trash and dog poop in the low area at the back. It was so thick I would not have been surprised to find the remains of a Union soldier from the Civil War.

The landscaper during the building process recommended that we pay someone to clear the entire lot and choose trees that we wanted, and add the necessary twenty grand to our mortgage. “Trust me,” he said. “You’ll be happier.” I laughed at the prospect, and thought that I could do the job myself in my spare time. Two young children pretty much take care of themselves, so I would have ample time. For the next ten years, I peeled away at the mess, and twice I paid an arborist to chop down dead and dangerous trees. The remaining trees were mostly cherry and ash. Cherry, it turns out, are more trouble than they are worth as they leave a mess of inedible fruit, and, once they grow tall, they are weak in the trunk and a threat to fall. After all my efforts, it is still an unsightly mess.

The emerald ash borer wreaked havoc on the ash. I called back the arborist to cut down 40 ash trees a couple of years ago. We piled the wood in three main “stacks” in the backyard. Now those unsightly piles are far worse: the wood is rotting, there is poison ivy flourishing at the edges, and it now seems like more wood than I can ever cut, split, and burn in my life. Somehow, I had convinced myself that we would have a fun campfire each and every weekend, and the family would sit and talk and share stories. We have had two, maybe three such campfires.

Our yard still has a couple of dozen trees. One in particular annoyed me. It was an apple tree that had grown up with its trunk wrapped around the other. Part of that apple tree also grew down to the ground. It wasn’t a bad tree–not in my yard, where everything is a mess–but it simply annoyed me. So I cut it down.

A twenty-inch chain saw can be a frightening thing. I haven’t cut down any significant trees, so the wedge and cut method meant nothing to me. Besides, this apple tree was wrapped around an ash, so it wasn’t going to fall no matter how many times I yelled “timber.”

I basically scared myself pretty thoroughly trying to fell it. It stood on a slight rise on soft ground, and I had to raise the chain saw up to eye level where I needed to cut it. It’s a great shoulder workout that way, in the same sense that being chased by a mugger can be aerobic.

I needed an ax to finish the job, and as I swung, I kept thinking that it was even money that the trunk was going to crash down on me. I once played Babe the blue ox in Mrs. Perkins’ fifth grade production of “Paul Bunyan”. Working with Nick, our performance was well regarded. That’s about as much woodsman training as I’ve had in my life. Handling the chainsaw and swinging an ax has been self taught since that time.

One final, mighty swing cut through the apple tree, and the weight of the tree drove the severed trunk several inches into the ground. It happened in the blink of an eye, before I could move a muscle. Now I know why lumberjacks have trouble securing workers compensation insurance. If gravity and the friction of the ash tree had so deigned, that apple tree could have broken my foot, shattered my leg, or crushed my chest. And it’s the last of those options, crushing my chest, that would have hurt the least, because my heart would likely have stopped in just a few seconds.

I chopped up what remained of the apple tree, and added the wood to my unsightly wood piles. I split a few logs with the hope that I might, someday, have a campfire in the back yard.