I eventually knew that I’d have to come face-to-face with my primordial urges and buy a chain saw. It is in my genetic predisposition that I possess the most feared and respected wood cutting tool in the history of civilization. Finally, last weekend, in a moment of calm logic and hormonal idiocy, I bought one.
A chain saw is an incredible tool. It has a hundred hardened high-speed steel chippers spinning on a steel bar that chews through anything in its path, with reckless abandon. It can even be used by an artist, (with great precision), considering its shape and size. The whole design yells “danger,” and yet we pick it up with impunity and set to work on trees and limbs that are reduced to firewood in a matter of minutes.
My father considered the chainsaw the ultimate extension of himself. It was like being a Zen Master, who could think of a limb lying on the ground, and in one short motion, it did so. He could imagine a tree flat on its side; a few calculated cuts later, there it was, as he had willed it. He even cured his nightmares with one.
I remember, in my early childhood, when he announced the need to cut the tall cottonwood trees that lined the road in front of our house, in rural Luther, Okla. The trees had been the triumph of an earlier generation, who put them in rows about 30 feet apart, around the time of statehood. They were wonderful afternoon shade and a haven for wildlife. Dad was convinced that a storm was going to blow them down and they’d crash onto the house. The non sequitur is that he intended to cut the trees and let them fall toward the house. The trees were straight and could easily have been felled to the west. But they would have temporarily blocked a dirt road and landed on the neighbor’s fence and pasture, so that was out of the question.
The first one came down using a crosscut (caveman chainsaw), as we had no access to a “motorized version” at the time. I was allowed to stand next to the tree, the safest place during this event, and I remember my oldest brother, dutifully on the other end of the saw, asking dad if he thought the tree would hit the house. “No, I stepped it off,” was the reply. We learned later (when it took the porch off) that he knew how far it was to the house, but not the height of the tree.
The second tree adventure, a year later, was even worse as the tree was taller. Since he then worked for the County Highway Department, which possessed, (you guessed it), a chain saw, this one was just he and the tree, because all family members with any sense had abandoned him. He knew this tree was tall enough to destroy the house, but there was a narrow opening between the house and the granary/garage where he was aiming it. With an amazing feat of woodsmanship, that never needed to happen, he “earned” his lumberjack pin by dropping this tree exactly in this groove and then spending the next two weeks sawing up and hauling off the wood. We had rounds of cottonwood rotting in the pasture for 20 years.
At age 80, he offered me a 50-foot tall hickory tree, if I’d haul it to my fireplace. We arrived at the tree, and he told me, a 40-year-old man, to stay in the truck until he’d cut it down. I resented this and stood beside the truck to show my defiance, while he expertly felled an incredibly dense and heavy timber. We chunked it up and loaded it into my truck, to the point the tires and springs yelled in protest.
I have respect for chainsaws, but also find that they are the ultimate in raw masculinity, and way up the scale on humor. Using one is also a great physical and emotional outlet. You can’t cut a tree with a chainsaw and then be mad. The first thought is to rejoice that you are still alive. The second, is to realize that you’ve drained almost every emotion out of your body.
As far as humor, I think country comedian Jerry Clower’s story of Marcel Ledbetter and the lightweight McCullough, is the best description of a man who’d had enough and used an implement of his trade to express his displeasure. In capsule: Marcel had been cutting wood all day, and stopped at the local bar to ask if they’d sell him a pop. He was ridiculed for his attire and odor and refused. He stuck his hands in the bib of his overalls and walked dejectedly back to the truck where he pulled out, and fired up, that lightweight McCullough. Marcel, in Jerry’s descriptive terminology, cut the screen door off the bar, cut the legs out from under the pool table and cut the bar in half. “They gave Marcel the bar,” was the final rebel line.
So, why did I buy a chain saw? I hate borrowing something as personal as this tool. I need to tend to my “wood lot” of seven trees. I want to possess this tool of commerce, artistry and mass destruction just to know that I can control it and myself. I just don’t plan to cut any tall trees near the house.