Thursday, April 10, 2014

When to fell a tree

I once heard a story about a man who had a tree.  The tree, in his back yard, stood mostly straight- tall and proud...and dying of invasive infestation.  It endangered his home and his family, if it were to fall.  Decades of carbon, conjured invisibly out of the atmosphere had been fixed into sturdy, heavy fibers of Hemlock.

The man knew an old-world lumberjack, a neighbor of sorts in this remote mountain community.  This lumberjack was not your stereotype- small, wiry, slightly hunched and well past his prime, with suspenders to keep his trousers up, and spectacles to fix his myopia. He would smoke his pipe and lean on his axe whenever deep in thought.  He was closer to how one might picture Aldo Leopold, writing the next chapter of Sand County Almanac in his mind, than to a muscle-bound, chain-saw-toting, chew-spitting, mysoginistic beer-chugging specimen of logger.  The man hired this old logger to come cut down the tree.

And the first day, the logger walked the two miles of dusty roads to the man's trim cabin.  He went out back, lit his pipe, leaned on his axe, and thought a while.  He walked back off down the road.

This happened twice.  The second time much the same as the first.  He walked two miles with his axe on his shoulder, looked the tree up and down, smoked a full pipe, and walked home.  The man grew concerned.  Was this logger going to cut down the tree or not?  He started thinking he should pay a landscaping company, with all their cherry-pickers, ropes, and chainsaws, to come all the way out and turn the tree to woodchips.

But the third time the logger walked the dusty road, there was a strange calm in the air.  An unusual spring storm was brewing.  The man fretted all the more- if the logger performed his act a third time, the tree might fall on the man's house and emperil his family.

Calmly, the logger lit his pipe and the smoke wafted lazily in every direction, indecisive.  He looked the tree up and down, thoroughly and shamelessly, like an old lecher at a blushing teen.  And then, the logger put his finger in his mouth and pointed at the tree, or rather, the ominous sky above.  And he immediately began to chop, smoothly and efficiently, his well-honed axe making short work of the grain of the mighty tree.

He paused to catch breath, and lit another pipe. The man noticed...the logger's pipe smoke was no longer lazy.  It now flew from his pipe in a very specific direction...precisely opposite the man's house.

You see, the logger knew these parts, having grown up here.  And he knew that the wind was usually prevalent in a particularly unfavorable direction for the unfortunate position of the man's house on the lee side of the tree and the sail-like tendencies of the dying tree's bulk.  And of course, having a house there, there was a large clearing, and the tree's branches naturally grew more heartily toward the house, eager for sunlight.  So the weight of the tree and the force of the wind were together conspiring to wreck the poor man's house, little did he know.

But the old logger knew.  And he was patient.  He waited for an unusual and strong wind, which blew exactly opposite the usual state of affairs.  And the old man knew from experience just when the wind would be gusting strongly enough to fell the tree...away from the man's house.  And so now having cut a sizeable wedge out of the tree, the logger began to notch the side facing the house, and with a mighty groan the tree fell cleanly away and landed with a deep resonance that reverberated in the very foundations of the house.

So, the moral is clear.  Patience is often rewarded with efficient successes.  The tree crew, all four of them, driving the truck, operating the chainsaws and blocks and tackle and wedges, might have gotten the job done- but this old man knew the far simpler approach.  Sometimes, it's best to wait for the right moment before acting.  It takes time, attention, and practice to build experience- experience on when to act and when to wait. And the logger lit another pipe and walked two miles home, before the first drop of rain pattered on the man's safe roof.  He could segment the tree on a better day.

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