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A short story, by Michael Fine
© Michael Fine 2019
This is a
work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and
incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a
fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual
events is purely coincidental.
First came the Gypsy Moths. Then the
southern pine beetle and the emerald ash borer. Then the hot dry summers.
Thirteen percent of trees in the woods died. 50,000 acres of trees. Mostly oak.
luck and bad luck, bundled together. Climate change, real after all. Sad to lose all those oaks. But dead trees make more work for a tree guy.
best money in forestry is in writing forest plans, subsidized and paid for by the
good old USDA. The second-best money is
the clear cutting of hardwood forests, if you can find a forest where the land
is flat, and the forest is mature. But Allan Gordon hated clear cutting, even
though it paid the bills. Forest plans
were mostly desk work, which Allan also hated.
But clear cutting was just wrong.
He was no tree hugger, let me tell you.
A man has to make a living.
Still, clear cutting bothered something in his soul. To tell the truth, dropping any tree bothered
something in his soul, but it was a small bother, a whisper, not a shout. Clear cutting was a shout. Even so, you have to play the cards you are
dealt, not the ones you wish you had.
They called him about a big dead oak in a
ravine. Now he was standing beneath it.
He came ready to climb, with his climbing harness and his green helmet, his
orange and white chainsaw hung from his harness, but he sure wasn’t going up this tree. Too damn big to get a flip-line
old oak was the biggest dead tree Allan had ever been asked to drop. Old growth, near as he could make out. A hundred feet tall or more, bigger than the
three other big oaks nearby. Maybe two, maybe three hundred years old. Something like eight feet in diameter at the
stump. More than fifteen feet around –
so big that three men holding hands couldn’t reach around it. Oak grows straight up, thrusting out of the
earth, a huge trunk with no branches at all until you are two thirds of the way
up, so this one was just ridged gray brown trunk for sixty feet. Then three huge branches. Then a leafy crown. Sixty feet of climbing without a rest,
without a place to secure a line. No
way. Sixty feet is a very long way to
was in a grove of big oak on a steep slope, on a north-facing glacial moraine a
couple of hundred yards from the nearest road.
The rock-strewn slope was pockmarked by big boulders and broken-off
hunks of ledge that had been strewn about when the glaciers retreated, with a
stream that was a waterfall in slow motion that gurgled and sang as water came
off the hillside and through the rocks.
old oak’s ridged bark made Allan think of elephant hide. The bark thickened into ridges that ran
straight up and down. The grooves
between the ridges were dark grey brown, almost black, and the bark itself was warm
to the touch – warmer for sure than the late October air. The tree felt old and
wise. The grove of big oak reminded Allan
of a herd of elephants, also old and wise, slow moving but ponderous, balanced,
resilient and all-knowing.
They were going to build condos. In a rocky gorge that was good for nothing,
that was too rocky and sloped to farm and too dark, because it was north
facing, to use for grazing. No one ever wanted
to put a house here. No one even hunted
here – the slope was too steep. There
was a story about a wolf den, once, back before the settlers came. Wolves and snakes, maybe. But not good for people. The old oak had
grown undisturbed for hundreds of years.
now some developer was going to turn this grove of old oak into condos and
parking lots. They were going to bulldoze
a long drive in from the road, terrace the hillside, pour foundations and build
themselves a development right into this slope, just so some rich guy could
make himself a bundle. Condos on both
sides of the stream, which they were going to leave because it was way too
expensive to divert. The stream, which
once fell between the rocks in the dark glen and became a rushing waterfall
after a hard rain or when the snow melted, would become scenic natural beauty,
a selling point for the development that was about to take the place of a beautiful
grove of old growth oak that had never been cut, had rarely been walked under
by human people, and could never be replaced.
never get a bucket truck up here, Allan thought. Not that any bucket truck would be of any
use. The damn tree was too tall, and the branches were too big no cut from
below. No way to limb this tree. The
damn thing would have to come down whole. A whale of a tree. Bitch and a half
to drop. More dangerous than dynamite.
walked around the tree. Big, really big. Bigger than it looked. Then he walked around
it a second time. It wanted to fall northeast, up the slope, because the
biggest branch grew in that direction, sixty feet up and itself likely three feet
mapped his escape, the first thing he did when he was getting ready to drop a
tree, because you never really know how a tree is going to fall. There was another big oak about twenty yards
away, but there were a couple of big rocks, thick brush and a few saplings
between the big one and that one, rocks he’d have to weave around and brush
he’d have to navigate if he were trying to get out of the way of a surprise
fall. Pretty sketchy, as a route to
safety. Hard to know how much time he’d
have, if the monster fell the wrong way.
Hard to know how much protection another tree would give him, once this
monster started to move. The fall of a twenty-ton
tree was like a small nuclear explosion. Once the tree leaned a little, once it
started to fall and picked up speed, it would obliterate anything that lay
beneath it. The earth would rock when it hit the ground. They’d hear the crash
a mile away, the sound of a locomotive hitting a concrete wall. Its huge branches
and any tree in its way would be splintered by the force of the fall.
need a sixty inch saw to drop a tree this big, with a bar that was almost as
long as Allan was tall. The bar alone cost
more than most of Allan’s chainsaws. It
would take days to hollow out the trunk, carving blocks of wood that were each
as wide as most of the trees Allan dropped. Once he had it on the ground it would take most
of a week to cut the trunk into slabs, split the slabs and haul them out.
You’d need a front-end loader to move those
slabs and a good size dump truck to carry them away, but you’d have to carve
yourself a little road just to get that equipment in, and you’d make a mess of
the forest floor and that little waterfall.
If you left the damn tree alone the world
wouldn’t end. If you just left it, it would fall on its own eventually. It
would rot from the inside the way oak does, because oak is a wet wood, and drop
branches one by one. It might take
thirty or forty years for the tree to drop.
Maybe more. And then another
twenty or thirty years to rot. No harm
would come from doing nothing. Old trees
died, fell and rotted for millions of years before humans came around. The world carried on very well without us, then,
thank you very much.
that was before condos.
man has to make a living.
tree was dead. It had to come down. There were no two ways about it. And then rest of that old oak grove with it. They were just trees. Trees grow back. They could grow in other places.
bid the job. He took care to cushion his
bid so there was a margin in case things didn’t go as he planned, so he’d be
sure to make decent money. He included
three weeks of work and the cost of that long bar, and a part of him hoped he
wouldn’t get the job. Lots of dough. He’d make plenty if the tree came down
smoothly, as long as he didn’t get squashed like a bug in the process. He’d
still likely come in under his competitor, a national tree removal operation
with thousands of green trucks, a famous name in the industry, and so much
overhead that Allan could usually under-price them on specialized jobs like
this. Ten days to drop the big oak. A week to cut that sucker up. Allan knew trees. And the tree business, better than anyone.
Allan got the job.
stood under the old oak holding his puny Stihl, his best saw but still nothing compared
to the size and majesty of the oak.
He started to work. First he prepared that escape route. He cut the brush and saplings and moved as
many rocks as he could between the old oak and its neighbor tree so there was a
clear path to some protection.
his saw touched the bark of the tree for the first time. The tree was just wood, like any other
tree. The saw sprayed a shower of tiny
brown and yellow woodchips away from the trunk, a shower of woodchips mixed
with white smoke from the saw’s exhaust.
The saw whined as it cut, a mechanical screech that rose and fell in
pitch as Allan squeezed the trigger of the saw.
The air smelled from that exhaust, the smell of burnt gasoline and
thirty weight oil.
Allan laid in a felling cut, a huge vee’d notch, on the side and in the
direction that the tree would fall. That
cut that took him ten hours to place because of the size of the trunk. Then Allan put on the six-foot bar and laid
in a base cut, on the side away from the side of the fall, notching out slabs
of wood the size of shipping cartons to create a lateral cave almost big enough
to fit a man inside the trunk itself. He
placed wedges as he worked, blocks of wood that could support the tree’s
weight, as protection, so the weight of the tree didn’t shift and surprise him,
so the tree would fall exactly where he planned it to drop.
took three days to finish the base-cut.
That left the trunk hollowed out, so there were just two columns of
wood, one on each side, holding the weight of the trunk. Allan could see through the trunk at its base. A strong wind could have dropped the tree at
that point. The weight of the tree, shifting with the wind, would have
splintered the support columns of wood, once the mass of the thing began to
move. And then the whole trunk would
have come down, smashing everything in its path.
While Allan worked, the developer had a
bulldozer cut a dirt road in from the street, so a front-end loader and dump
trucks could get to the site. The sound
of machinery, of grinding gears, the whine of the chain saws, the hammering and
the voices of men yelling over the noise filled the dark north-facing glen, and
now the air smelled of motor oil, grease, and diesel exhaust.
was fall. The leaves were off most of
the maples, but the oak trees that were still alive held onto their leaves as
they always do, dark green and brown leaves that stay waving in the wind long
after most other leaves have fallen.
There were slashes of red, hickories that hadn’t lost all their leaves,
and of yellow, birch leaves that hadn’t yet dropped. The white birches could now be seen in the
woods, white slashes on a gray and brown hillside, their white trunks bringing
order and grace to the woods, exclamation marks against the grey and brown
rocks, their yellow leaves a brilliant gold, a hint or a reminder of life
everlasting, which, of course, it isn’t.
to work in the fall when the air is cool, even though the days are shorted and
the sun, low on the horizon, glints into your vision. Too damned hot, in the summer, and the long
days let you work way past exhaustion, which is when you make mistakes.
When the back cut was nearly finished, Allan
walked away to recheck the tree and his calculations. The weight was to one side. Gravity would put the tree where Allan wanted
it. All he had to do was finish the back
cut and get out of the way. Gravity is a
tree-guy’s friend. As long as it’s not
was no margin of error now.
cut the first of the two support columns with an old, almost worn out Stihl,
holding his breath as he cut. No reason
to lose your best saw if something went wrong. They were very close now. The weight of the tree settled into the new
cut, closing it. The least wind could now
send the tree crashing down.
he placed the last cut.
touched old Stihl to the remaining wood. His eyes were fixed on the cut he was
making, and he held his breath again.
was the moment of greatest danger. The faintest breeze might start the tree’s
fall, might push the tree the wrong way, crushing him. Or if he’d read the tree
wrong, gravity alone might drop it a different way, on top of him, or it might
twist as it fell, and Allan would be a pancake just the same. Once the tree
started to move, once it started to fall, there was no turning back. Twenty tons of wood. The trunk would crush
anything and everything in its path.
the space above his saw became a tiny bit larger than it had been. The cut he
was placing opened just a millimeter. Almost undetectable. Something had changed, had moved. The tree
was starting to fall.
cut the saw’s engine and ran like hell.
tree didn’t sway or twist. It hesitated,
wise at its tipping point.
leaned a little, just an inch or two at first.
then all hell let loose. Wood cracked
and groaned. The massive tree toppled, opening a whole new sky behind it. It came to Earth with a whoosh and a crash
and a boom, shaking the earth as if a meteor had landed, and drove boulders that
lay beneath it deep into the dirt. The entire universe was sucked into the
tree’s fall for a moment. The air, the trees and brush beneath it, the rocks
and the stream jumped and then trembled in the aftershocks.
Then the woods fell still.
then it was done. The big oak lay on the
ground, a continent on its side, an era ended.
was light in the woods where there had been only shade. A cool breeze came
up. The red leaves of a shag-bark
hickory nearby that Allan hadn’t noticed twisted in that breeze. Some of those
leaves fluttered to the ground.
Time marches on. The deed was done. The old oak was on the ground, and Allan had
failed to get killed doing it.
Allan began to limb the tree.
first cut the branches that were furthest out and had been highest in the sky,
working back toward the trunk. The
branch wood was already dried out, already brittle. Cutting dry wood is hard on chain saws. Cutting the trunk was a huge job, but he had
a week to do it. He’d get it done.
sun started to set. It was red and gold
and purple at the edges of the horizon.
put his saws in the truck and went home.
to see the old monster go. Good that
that the oak came down neatly and fell where he wanted it to fall. Good he’d survived this one without getting
hurt. Ducked another bullet. Live and let live, if and when you can.
man has to make a living.
he fell asleep that night, Allan remembered the new light and the new sky that
where the big oak had been, and the red and yellow leaves that fluttered down
in this new space.
was nothing else left to know.
The old oak was on the ground.
was still alive. For another moment or
All of Michael Fine’s stories and books are available on MichaelFineMD.com or by clicking here.
Michael Fine, MD is currently Health Policy Advisor to Mayor
James Diossa of Central Falls, Rhode Island and Senior Population Health
and Clinical Services Officer at Blackstone Valley Health Care, Inc. He
is facilitating a partnership between the City and Blackstone to create
the Central Falls Neighborhood Health Station, the US first attempt to
build a population based primary care and public health collaboration
that serves the entire population of a place. He has also recently been
named Health Liaison to the City of Pawtucket.
Dr. Fine served in the Cabinet of Governor Lincoln Chafee as
Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health from February of 2011
until March of 2015, overseeing a broad range of public health programs
and services, overseeing 450 public health professionals and managing a
budget of $110 million a year. Dr. Fine’s career as both a family
physician and manager in the field of healthcare has been devoted to
healthcare reform and the care of under-served populations. Before his
confirmation as Director of Health, Dr. Fine was the Medical Program
Director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections,
overseeing a healthcare unit servicing nearly20,000 people a year, with a
staff of over 85 physicians, psychiatrists, mental health workers,
nurses, and other health professionals. He was a founder and Managing
Director of HealthAccessRI, the nation’s first statewide organization
making prepaid, reduced fee-for-service primary care available to people
without employer-provided health insurance. Dr. Fine practiced for 16
years in urban Pawtucket, Rhode Island and rural Scituate, Rhode Island.
He is the former Physician Operating Officer of Hillside Avenue Family
and Community Medicine, the largest family practice in Rhode Island, and
the former Physician-in-Chief of the Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals’
Departments of Family and Community Medicine. He was co-chair of the
Allied Advocacy Group for Integrated Primary Care. He convened and
facilitated the Primary Care Leadership Council, a statewide
organization that represented 75 percent of Rhode Island’s primary care
physicians and practices.
He currently serves on the Boards of Crossroads Rhode Island, the
state’s largest service organization for the homeless, the Lown
Institute, the George Wiley Center, and RICARES. Dr. Fine founded
the Scituate Health Alliance, a community-based, population-focused
non-profit organization, which made Scituate the first community in the
United States to provide primary medical and dental care to all town
residents. Dr. Fine is a past President of the Rhode Island Academy of
Family Physicians and was an Open Society Institute/George Soros Fellow
in Medicine as a Profession from 2000 to2002. He has served on a number
of legislative committees for the Rhode Island General Assembly, has
chaired the Primary Care Advisory Committee for the Rhode Island
Department of Health, and sat on both the Urban Family Medicine Task
Force of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the National
Advisory Council to the National Health Services Corps.