Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The old man and the tree

Recently I climbed the ladder with the 14” McCulloch and took down a big, dead limb from a tree in the yard. I had stared at it long from the ground from several angles and decided it was doable. This after staring at it on a previous day and deciding it was too much for the old man I have become. But I kept returning to that gnarled and diseased trunk and staring up at that limb—my own white whale.

In the rafters of the garage I found a ladder. I looked at it for some minutes wondering if I could dislodge it and remove it from the garage on my own. So circumspect have I become in the matter of physical effort and inanimate objects. I reached up and grabbed a line attached to the ladder and pulled the thing toward me. It came down swiftly and I was grateful it was fashioned of a lightweight alloy. I brought it out to the yard and used it to reach some small broken branches that were caught in the boughs of another tree and remove them.

That was a couple of days ago. Yesterday I grabbed the ladder from where I had placed it outside, alongside the back of the garage. I carried it to the tree and leaned it against the diseased trunk. I climbed the ladder and observed the limb. It had a diameter of at least 20 inches close to the trunk and extended outward nearly horizontal at least 20 feet. I climbed back down and went in the house. Later I returned to the base of the ladder and grabbed it as if to move it. I had no thoughts in my mind as to what I was doing. I wasn’t climbing it again empty-handed. Was I going to carry the ladder back to the garage? The ladder was firmly in place. That info was communicated to me through my hands and arms as I stood toe to toe with the metal ladder and grabbed it like you might grab a close friend’s shoulders at a moment of intense grief or pain. That set me in motion. I walked to the garage and grabbed the 14” McCulloch off the shelf and took the 40:1 gas mixture in the plastic Arnold Palmer iced tea container. As I carried them out to the gnarled tree I wondered if the whole thing was folly.

I had run the chainsaw quite a bit in the days following Tropical Storm Irene and had acquired a level of confidence regarding its use. But that was on the ground. This would be 15 feet in the air. If the limb fell unexpectedly toward the ladder it could conceivably knock it over, however unlikely. Still it could cause me to lose balance. The saw would automatically shut off but if I fell I would surely at least sprain and probably break an ankle or worse. The ground below was a patchwork of tree roots. I could conk myself on the head (knock some sense into it?). “I could break my back,” I thought, then, “O stop, you are at most risking a sprained ankle,” which in my case could be grave, having no medical insurance and living alone. I checked the McCulloch for gas. It had enough. I looked up again at the bough I was obsessed with bringing down. I believed the ladder was well positioned—close enough for me to lean over the limb and do the job, far enough to escape the falling wood. I primed the saw and pulled the cord. It started easily as if Fate were greasing the skids for my folly.

The chain was somewhat loose but looked OK when running. Earlier I had worried about the loose chain. A guy told me that a loose chain could slip off the blade or break. I imagined the sharp metal chain whipping me across the face. I could lose an eye and my good looks. As I climbed the ladder with the growling McCulloch in my right hand, I was wearing a gray T-shirt, shorts and my work boots, my only concession to the chore at hand. No cap. No protective eyewear.

The climbing was inexorable. Once in place at the top I leaned out and placed the saw beneath the limb about two and a half feet from the trunk and carved upward making a narrow gash an inch or two deep. Then I got to work on the topside of the limb. I bore down with the 14” McCulloch. At first the saw seemed overmatched and I recalled the long bar of the professional chainsaw the licensed tree guy had used at a neighbor’s after Irene. But there was no turning back. I was a quarter of the way through. I couldn’t stop. How could I leave a semi-sawed-through limb of that size up in the air above our heads. As it was I steeled myself for its falling. I didn’t know when its weight would pull it down but the last thing I wanted was to be startled and to react instinctively and possibly lose balance and fall.

I was one third of the way through now. If it began to fall unexpectedly toward me I would toss the saw and hug the ladder and swing my legs out of the way—hopefully in time. I was nearly through. Surely the chainsaw must be close to the precut gash below? I was expecting the deep crackling of a limb being broken off during a storm. I put some ass into it and the McCulloch bit deeper. Minutes passed. The saw was nearly through. At one point the limb gave a soft crunch and the once mighty bough broke off and fell away smoothly to the lawn below, exactly where I intended it to land. I shut down the McCulloch and backed down the ladder.

After a brief rest inside the house I returned, buoyed by manly confidence, to ‘limb’ and ‘buck’ the bough, which I believe means saw it into fireplace-length pieces, and add it all to the woodpile. Thank God the woodpile was only steps away!

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