By Ken Root
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, 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. It can be used by an artist to carve a stump into the likeness of a bear or by an easily offended young man to cut a bar in half. (Jerry Clower’s famous story of Marcel Ledbetter and his lightweight McCullough) 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 vanquished 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 a row about 30 feet apart. They were planted around the time of statehood (1907). They were wonderful for afternoon shade and a haven for wildlife. However, dad was convinced that a storm was going to blow them down and they'd crash onto the house. The non-sequitur (Okie translation: screwed up logic) 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 lain in his pasture, so that was out of the question.
The first one came down using a crosscut saw (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 pulling 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 time it 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 aimed 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 the incredibly dense and heavy timber. We chunked it up and loaded it into my truck, to the point that 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 service. 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.
God bless you Oren on what would have been your 103rd birthday. Next time I hear a crack and rumble from the sky it might be lightning and thunder but I’ll just assume it’s you, felling trees in heaven.