Over the Labor Day weekend, I labored. Particularly, I cut down a tree, by hand, with an ax. I’d wager that less than 5% of the people who read this blog have ever cut down a tree.
I recommend it. It offers a microcosm of work, project management, life.
I could have just hired someone to take down the tree. But that seemed overkill as it wasn’t that big. I could have bought a chainsaw (or borrowed a neighbors) which would have taken down the tree in about 30 seconds. Instead, I choose to cut it down with an ax.
It’s easy to become removed from physical labor in today’s world. Especially if your job involves people paying you for your brain power. It’s easy to become a desk jockey, slinging paper and living a life of the mind. But taking on a demanding physical task is a worthwhile mental task as well. It is opportunity to engage your mind at a different level than in your day-to-day routine.
There is a fair bit of planning to comes along with cutting down even a small tree. Before you ever even pick up the ax, you have to survey the land. Is there a clear area for the tree to fall? Ground clutter? Power lines? Which direction would be best for the tree to come down? Do you have the right ax? Gloves? Handsaw?
There is also the matter of whether or not you are physically capable. Cutting down a modestly sized tree, with a 15 pound ax, took me the better part of an hour. If I didn’t regularly lift weights, run, and generally remain physically fit, I would have had to stop five minutes in. Only because I make it a priority to stay in good physical condition was I able to consider cutting down the tree.
It hurts your hands to cut down a tree. Each swing sends reverberations down the shaft and into your arms. As you cut into the tree, you can feel different layers of resistance. The outer layers soft and spongy, the inner layers hard and dense. You can feel the texture of the tree through the ax.
You also learn to appreciate the technique that comes with swinging an ax. The appropriate amount of effort to put into a swing. Letting the weight of the ax do the work. Making sure you set yourself before each swing. An ax is not a tool which which to be careless.
Cutting down a tree also teaches patience. It’s not something to be accomplished quickly. You have to pace yourself or you’ll wear yourself out. You have to take time to shift from the main cut to the counter cut. Knock away debris.
Eventually you approach the end. You can feel it in the impact of the ax. The tree feels weak. A couple more swings and you stop. What was once an immovable object now only requires a gentle push to fall down. The tree falls slowly, a cracking sound accompanies it as it falls. It settles onto the ground with a whisper of leaves.
There is a deep level of satisfaction that comes with felling a tree. It’s a self-set task that alters the landscape. It gives a feeling of having made a significant, permanent impact. Not really of course, another tree could grow to replace it in 20 years or so. But how often do you affect a 20 year change in your life?
The tree is down but there is still more to do. The tree must now be cut up for kindling, separated into chunks that can be stacked and taken away. The stump must be cut down to a reasonable size as well. Cutting down a tree is an accomplishment that only leads to more work to be done. My son gives me a thumbs up from his perch where he’s been watching me cut down the tree. I return it.
Cutting down a tree provides an intimacy of knowledge. The modern world makes it easy to take things and experiences for granted. To presume knowledge or experience that we don’t really possess it. To create caricatures of ourselves and present them to the world.
Yet the authenticity of real experience, the wisdom that comes with having really done a thing is invaluable and irreplaceable. It doesn’t matter if it’s deposing a witness or cutting down a tree. Until you’ve done it, until you’ve experienced it, you don’t know what it’s really like.
We should all take the time to have more experiences like it.
Someone, somewhere, cut down some trees to make the paper my book is printed on. I appreciate that much more now, although they likely used lumber machines. Slackers.