For the last six years I’ve been swapping emails a few times a month with a brilliant writer friend who lives Down Under. In response to my The chickens have voted posting she wrote, “If humans didn’t misguidedly believe in the inferior intelligence of birds & animals, they wouldn’t dare exploit them so cruelly & ruthlessly.” It made me smile. I’d just suggested the American electorate is as clueless as a flock of chickens and she thought I was libeling the chickens.
I see her point. If some growing sinkhole threatened to send their henhouse over a cliff, our chickens wouldn’t need very long to decide to run the other way. Not so with Congress. A Fiscal Cliff approaches and they spin in little circles. Half shout We’re all gonna die! and the rest scream Don’t blame me! and over they go.
It’s not as if all this happened fifty years ago. Right in the middle of our Congressional coma we hold a $1.25-billion election (Billion with a B) to tell 91% of the incumbents to keep up the good work. My writer friend is right: I owe an apology to our hens.
A few weeks ago Delphine and I were watching an episode of Mountain Men about life off the grid. Eustace Conway, a fellow living in the Cherokee National Forest for 35 years, says, that those of us who don’t know where our food comes from or where our poop goes are living in a virtual reality. He’s right.
For most of my life getting warmer meant turning a thermostat dial. Heat came directly from that little box on the wall the same way that electricity came from the little holes in the outlets around the house. Shortly after we moved to our homestead the furnace stopped working. We called our oil company and a fellow showed up to fix it. It needed an hour’s worth of work and an $87 motor. The bill? $800.
Why did the oil company quote us $800? Because they thought we had no choice. We were vulnerable. I had no clue how to do a simple motor swap out. We were living at the end of a precarious branch on the technology tree and the oil company earned their profit waving a saw.
Delphine and I decided to yank the oil furnace out of our cellar and heat with wood. We’re certainly not in the same league as Eustace, but being responsible for gathering the fuel we need to keep warm in winter has put us in touch with nature in a way we had never imagined.
Not only did switching to wood reduce our vulnerability to greed, but it offered some unexpected upsides. Suddenly knowing the outside temperature was useful. We moved from our virtual reality to a much more engaging natural world. We were now connected to cold snaps and warm spells – aware of what was coming and what we needed to do about it. We had moved back to planet Earth. Delphine and I learned a wonderful new hobby: cutting and hauling and splitting and stacking the stuff that keeps us toasty. It grows in our back woods – right out of the dirt. And we don’t have a hundred people standing between us and it with their hands out extorting profits from our misfortune.
Of course starting at my age to fell trees doesn’t always go as smoothly as it might if I had spent a lifetime learning to do it. I suppose if I wanted to really get back to basics I could swing an ax and use a hand saw to cut the wood. If you’ve ever tried it you do have to wonder how the early settlers ever survived. I allow myself the luxury of a chainsaw. I admit that not all technology is bad – just the kind that gives total strangers mortal leverage over me.
Now Delphine and I like trees – a lot. They seem grand and noble and enduring. Luckily we have enough trees on our land that we only take volunteers – trees that have died or been uprooted in storms. We need some wood and we find a tree that stands sixty feet high but an ice storm has caused it to lean over a path in our woods. It needs to be taken down. We call it Leaning Larry.
I march out to Larry with my chainsaw, yank on the starter cord a few dozen times to get it started (how do those guys on the tube do it?), and suddenly realize Larry can easily flatten me as he falls. Real life is so much more intense than the life I conjure in my mind.
In any case, I slice Larry down low just like I’ve seen it done on YouTube. I then make a cut a little higher on his other side to release him and have him fall in the direction he’s already leaning. Only he doesn’t fall. He just stands there supported by an inch of remaining wood. I know he’s going to fall any moment and I want to be at least sixty feet away when he does – but he doesn’t.
I cautiously approach my top cut and remove another half-inch of wood – and run like crazy when I hear the first cracking sound. I look back and see Larry still standing. I’m sure a sparrow landing on one of his branches will take him down. But still he stands.
I wait fifteen minutes and Larry has not changed position. I have to take just a little more from that release cut. I creep back to him, insert the chainsaw into the cut and half a second later hear a definitive crack as Larry hinges over. Run away! Run away!
Larry does indeed separate from his roots. He leans over and falls a dozen feet into the top branches of another large tree standing nearby – Tabitha the Tall. It’s a soulful scene, one old friend supporting another in an hour of need.
I wait for the crash to the ground. None comes. Tabitha is holding Larry up at about twenty degrees off vertical. Larry has jumped about six feet toward Tabitha and replanted his base firmly in the ground. All I’ve done is shorten Larry by a few feet and have him stand up straighter.
Okay. So I’ll cut him again. I repeat the chainsaw startup ritual, make an undercut, an over cut, watch Larry release himself from his lower four feet, and once again plant his new bottom in the dirt as he stands slightly more upright in his new location. Maybe I didn’t shout Timber! loud enough?
Once more into the fray. Undercut, over cut, Larry separates from his base – and now hangs suspended six feet in the air. I look up and realize Larry now has his upper branches entangled in Tabitha’s upper branches and is slowly swaying in the breeze like a giant pendulum. He will simply not fall.
Bill Withers starts singing in my head. Lean on me When you’re not strong, And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on. For it won’t be long ‘Til I’m gonna need Somebody to lean on…
Trees don’t levitate this way on television. What am I doing wrong? I don’t want to wound Larry – I want a clean kill. Cut, cut, drop, it’s over. The scene is so sad. What have I done? For five or six decades these two have grown old alongside each other, weathered storms, talked about how proud they were of this sapling and that, exchanged loving glances. And just when Larry needs a little help I come along with my chainsaw and cut him off at the ankles.
I push on Larry’s trunk. He’s massively heavy and doesn’t budge. I’m hoping to swing him back and forth until his upper branches let go. There is to be no swinging. He’s just too heavy. I try my utility vehicle but the wheels just spin. I can’t leave him suspended like this because at some unexpected moment he might let go and flatten one of us as we walk down our path into the woods.
I have no choice. I know what I have to do. I approach Tabitha with the chainsaw. I’m worried that Larry might decide to drop on me just to save his friend. I make two quick cuts and run like a maniac as Larry and Tabitha, still joined up top at the branches, hit the ground together. Whoosh, boom.
I feel as if I owe them a few final words of comfort. I tell them they’re going on a great adventure together, rising high in the sky through our chimney and off to exotic lands – much more exciting than rotting on the forest floor.
I suppose we all have to go sometime. But this was an exit I’ll never forget.