I have cut wood for many, many years.
That day I was clearing trees leaning over the long sinuous gravel drive that crawls up the mountain where I live. In winter the sun cannot reach the earth even through the treeless canopy. The ice and snow cannot be melted by its shine. There are spots on curves where if your car slid off the lane, you would roll a long way down the slope. The only way you could stop would be a collision with the trunk of an ash or oak or cherry.
Most of the mile long lane is shared by the six homes that are perched well apart from one another on the hundreds of acres on this wild mountainside.
I’d been cutting all morning. My arms were tired and sore. The muscles were not used to holding the 10-pound saw that long. It was full of noise and vibration and power and danger. A lot of the cutting was above my shoulders. That was another action which my muscles were not accustomed to. It becomes even more difficult when you are fatigued. My legs were rubbery. My feet and ankles ached from all the awkward stepping and stances on and around rocks and scars on the land.
I had dropped and cleared perhaps a score of trees. Some were only a few inches in diameter. Others were up to two feet in diameter.
I’d said “Enough” several times.
“Time to quit.”
But then I’d see another problem tree.
“Just one more…”
I saw a 21-inch maple just down the curve. It was angling sharply over the road. It wore smooth even gray bark.
Just looking at the trunk I knew it would be easy to drop. I knew just where it would fall. It would drop directly across the lane, and I could cut it up easily. As with most of the others, I would lop off the smaller branches to be dragged into the woods. Then I would cut the trunk and the bigger branches into manageable lengths. I would drag or roll those big chunks of the trunk to the roadside. When the road was made passable, I would cut the wood in lengths short enough to fit in the wood stove.
On some future day, I would take my truck down the road and toss the firewood into its bed. Since all the wood was green, it would need to stacked in the barn for six months or more before it would dry enough to be burned.
When I had ambled down to the maple, my saw purring in my grip, I looked up. It was very tall. 55, 60 feet.
I clambered up the six-foot bank it grew upon. Once there, I stood to the side of it just a couple feet away. With the top of my bar I reached around and cut a deep notch in the side facing the drive. I then chose where to angle the blade down on the opposite side of the trunk. I chose a spot a few inches higher than the notch. This method would aid in insuring the tree would fall the way I wanted.
I squeezed the trigger with my right forefinger, and the saw kicked a little as it revved up. Its roar was muffled by the ear protectors I wore. They are shaped like headphones but are designed to keep sound out rather than pour music into your ears.
This chain was still quite sharp. It spit out little strings and curls of wood pulp. Not the powdery dust that comes out of dull saws.
Soon the when the bar was about one third into the trunk, the big tree started a slow lean with low rustling sounds from high above. A loud “crack!” and it began its fall.
Then it stopped!
It was so tall its crown reached across the road and was trapped amongst the boughs of the big trees opposite.
It was a “snag.”
To get it down, I would need to cut off a chunk of the trunk. The tree’s base would then drop to the ground being that much shorter. Then it could fall. As it stood, the base of the long trunk had only just fallen off its stump. It dug into the soil just a bit down the six-foot bank that I stood atop of. It was now in an awkward position to get to a spot to cut it. My left foot would need to be planted near the crest. That knee was quite bent as my right foot stretched almost three feet below it.
This time I started the cut on the near side of the trunk. The slice, the bisection of the trunk, would hinge toward me this time. The chain spun faster than I could see. It bit through the smooth gray trunk immediately. Soon the bar was burying itself into the sapwood. When it was starting into the heartwood, about a third through, I lifted it out of the cut. The hinge would close on that side of the trunk. If I went too far, the hinge would start to close, and it would pinch the bar. The saw would be trapped, and extraordinary measures would be required to free it. I reached around and with the top of the bar began cutting—the bar working its way into the living wood opposite from where I’d started. In a couple minutes the quarter inch cut nearest me started to close. Then it was pressed shut as the cut opposite began to open, widen. The chain kept burrowing in. When I could tell it was ready to come apart, I slipped the bar out and stepped back.
You always plan in what direction to escape should things go awry, and the tree starts to fall in a direction you didn’t expect. I had chosen an even bigger tree a dozen feet away. I could quickly step behind it and nothing could get me.
The trunk came apart. The bottom four feet tumbled and rolled into the roadside below me.
The tall trunk dropped straight down; down there in the edge of the lane as well and…remained standing. Its crown was still intertwined with the boughs of the trees opposite. It was held up by other trees, unable to give into gravity’s pull and fall to the ground.
I now stood on the edge of the road. I went through the same process again. This time I reaching to start the cut about five feet up the long trunk. When I’d cut through both sides far enough, the cut nearest me closed, and the tree hinged toward the road and with a “craaack!” came apart into two pieces. The long part of the tree was now five feet shorter. But it still stood. Its branches still snagged amongst the branches of trees still living across it. Now it stood nearly in the center of the road. It stood almost straight up as if it was growing in the center of the road.
“I should leave it.” I laughed. My few neighbors would think it had sprung up overnight.
With no discernible lean, it was uncertain which direction the maple would fall regardless how I angled my cuts.
I stood next to it and stared up its length. Its crown was a tangle of mystery. That added to the confusion. If the entwining was released upon this cut, the mess above could cause the fall to be influenced by the branches above as well as the trunk below.
‘Damn!’ I thought. ‘I’m tired. This was stupid.’
Which way will it go?
I looked for a safe escape route. Usually a big tree to get behind quickly if the worst happens.
I looked around me. The bank rose about six feet on either side of the gravel lane. Ideally the tree would fall in the direction it had originally been angled toward—between the trees it was now snagged upon. Escaping in either direction over the banks would be problematic as I would have to scramble up it. With my tired rubbery legs and carrying the saw I ruled that out.
I looked up its still long nearly vertical trunk. If its crown being tangled was not a factor, I could notch one side and angle down toward the notch from the other side. That way I could guide its fall and know where it was going.
“I don’t want to do this.”
That only left the road. I could only escape on the road. There was nothing to hide behind in the lane. I looked downhill. I thought that this was not a good decision as trees usually fall downhill.
Well, if necessary, I would decide where to run when it started to fall.
I decided to cut the notch toward the far side of the road yet again. If it dropped straight down, it would then most likely be below the other trees’ canopies and would fall into the woods.
I notched the far side and began cutting across the near side. I pulled the chain saw away as soon as I sensed the hinge was beginning to move.
The five-foot chunk kicked out as expected. The new bottom of the still-tall trunk dropped straight down into the gravel drive.
Then, even with the ear protection on, I could hear the cracking and rustle of branches and leaves above. I looked up and the whole crown of the tree whose trunk I had cut four times now was rolling, turning along the canopies of the other trees. It still could not fall into the woods in front of me. I noticed the big cut base of the trunk pressed into the gravel was also turning very, very slowly…uphill…toward me. That struck as very odd. I looked at it longer than I should have.
More noise above me.
I looked up, and the tree was now falling. I panicked and started to run up the drive. I was slow.
I glanced over my shoulder. The tree was falling faster…falling uphill, up the road.
My legs were moving as fast they could. But each step was uphill. I was in slow motion. The tree was accelerating. There was no going to either side. This tree’s crown was wider that the road.
Then I knew I wouldn’t get away. I hoped I’d be far enough up the road that if I didn’t escape only the small branches would hit me. I bent forward and put my left arm over the back of my head and neck. Better my back would take any impact.
I felt and heard and then saw two 6-inch branches fall on either side of me. I was in between them. I was in a fork!
The whoosh and rustle and cracking of branches breaking against each other and the ground was deafening.
Why was I still holding the saw in my right hand?
I was still moving uphill when everything went silent.
I awoke amongst gray black branches and dull drab green leaves.
It was as if the color had been sucked out of them. They had been brilliant—the greens of late spring.
It was the day of the solstice. At 11:54 am the sun was at it northernmost point this year. It was late afternoon now.
For some reason, I recalled the night before a brilliant half moon had been high in a near navy blue sky.
The spring had started out so well. I had been beset by happiness. I was crossing a bridge, and the world changed just before I reached the other side.
For two thirds of the spring the old demons had been at bay. Then they had crept back. Niggling into my mind and heart and soul. The slow poison I had battled my whole adult life.
“So was today the last day of spring or the first of summer?”
I am always confused by such things.
Today or yesterday or tomorrow would be the beginning of summer as well as the longest day. Thereafter each day would have less sunlight. Until winter. Until the Winter Solstice.
Summer. I had wondered if things would change in the summer. What would the first days and weeks of summer be like?
It would be so sweet, so nice if they were like the first days, the first weeks of spring.
I’d had hopes this day.
It was time get up from my prone position amongst the maple branches. First, I raised myself to my hands and knees. I looked to the right. The chain saw was under a large branch. Its case was a dull color—like a burnt orange. It used to be a brilliant bright orange. The handle and the hard plastic case were cracked and crushed.
Well, I would have to leave it.
I pushed myself up and then stood. I should go home.
I walked slowly up the gravel road toward the house. A forest of dull green foliage and gray and black stone on either side of me were a little out focus.
The road leads up and up. Soon I was at the base of my property. I stopped and lifted my gaze. The blank windows of my house were like dark empty eye sockets looking down at me.
I took a step. And another.
Then I was standing before the side door.
‘I should go in,’ I thought.
I entered and walked past the bookcases and through the living room. I tried to look out the windows but could not. They were like iron gray sheets with no reflection. I went through the French doors into my bedroom. Jimmie’s Orvis blue blazer lay upon my bed. My brother has been gone almost twenty years. I often wear his jacket in honor of him. It has been all over the world with me inside it. I wonder how many years he had it before I inherited it? That was a vintage piece of clothing.
Who would wear it next?
Something made me think: ‘I wonder if I will see him?’
I turned and left the house. I walked across the drive and then up the stone steps that lead to my dolmen-like stone throne. I stepped around it and looked up the mountain. There was the beech tree which I had rescued a few years earlier from surrounding trees threatening to smother or crush her. Her bright green canopy shown out brightly amongst the shadows and boulders and leaf mold and thousands of other trees which were not alive like her. I had wanted to write a story about her and her spirit and how the word “book” has its etymological roots in the word “beech.” I had written seven chapters.
‘Damn,’ I thought. ‘I wanted to write a book.’
I walked up the gentle green slope toward her. I stepped through the sea of hay-scented ferns that lay before her. They were a lime-green carpet but over a foot tall.
It was getting dark so fast. Though she was only fifty yards away, it was evening when I stood beneath her graceful canopy. I looked up and through her boughs. I could see the half moon.
It was the beginning of the second season. The year was half over.
I stepped up and up.
Then I was on a graceful narrow white bridge. White cables arced up from either end. They peaked together at the center bound to two towers high above.
All around was darkness.
It was then I knew.
I was dead.
Felled by a tree of all things.
I looked across to the far side and could see nothing.
There was nothing to do but cross it. It rose gently. At its center I paused. I could hear the music of water below. Gertrude Jekyll had always said a garden should have the sounds of water in it. I had so many gardens on the mountain, but I had never put in any fountain or waterfall.
The waters sang below me. The creek could not be far down there. I wanted to linger and learn the words, but I was being called, summoned to continue.
Now the only way was a slow arc downward. I thought it important to count each step. At nineteen I was stopped, enfolded in arms I could not see.
A kiss pressed upon my lips. Then I was showered with kisses and each was a golden flicker in the air about me. Dozens of golden stars flashed before me. Each star was a new world brought close to my sight. I knew I was shown that this all must go on, forever. All this life, existence, spirit, soul…
The kisses and golden stars slowed and then ceased.
Two hands cradled the back of my head and drew it downward. I was given a deep kiss with an exhalation of crystalline breath. I heard a soft moan like the breath had diminished my benefactor, and the hands released me.
I was face down on the gravel road. A friend was trying to lift the branch off my back. He was speaking, but I could not understand his words. I looked to the side, and the saw’s brilliant orange case was crushed by one of the three forks that had fallen. Another fork had landed to my other side, and one six-inch thick fork lay atop me.
I felt the pressure lessen upon my back and shoulders and pushed myself up onto my hands and knees.
I looked to either side of the road, and the forest was nineteen different brilliant greens. The soft fresh greens when spring’s blossoming begins to mature. Soon the leaves will toughen, darken and become almost leathery.
I stood. There was a startling explosion of white light around and inside my head. In that light I could see her face.
I knew that I was alive. It was in her eyes. I lived.
My friend had his hands upon my shoulders. I knew he was still speaking, but all I could hear was a water song, part of an epic poem.
I raised my arms and put them upon his shoulders. His face came into focus. Somehow I assured him I was all right.
There was a dull throbbing ache on the back of my neck and shoulders which I knew would sharpen and become excruciating before long.
I took the first step up the mountain and the white light burst like a cold bright sun again. And her face was there again, just beyond reach.
I thanked her.
She had rescued,
I took step after step. At each step, the light flashed within and about me, at first as if I was in the center of a cold white star. Then, further on, the flashes softened to a warm soft golden. And in each flash, I saw her face just ahead, just out of reach.
Warm soft golden.
And all my way home the unseen waters of the air flowing over and around me sang.
It was a long story about life and struggle and good and evil and love.