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Dr. Michael Fine

A Long Way to Fall, A short story by Michael Fine

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.

Good 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.

The 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 around.

The 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 fall.

It 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.

The 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.

Condos. 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.

Only 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.

You’ll 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.

Allan 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 in diameter. 

He 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.

He’d 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. 

But that was before condos.

A man has to make a living. 

The 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.

He 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.

He 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.

Then 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.

First 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.

         It 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.

It 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. 

Better 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 your enemy.

There was no margin of error now.

Allan 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.

Then he placed the last cut.

He touched old Stihl to the remaining wood. His eyes were fixed on the cut he was making, and he held his breath again.

This 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.

Then 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.

Allan cut the saw’s engine and ran like hell.

The tree didn’t sway or twist.  It hesitated, wise at its tipping point.

It leaned a little, just an inch or two at first.

And 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.

And then it was done.  The big oak lay on the ground, a continent on its side, an era ended.

There 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. 

He 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.

The sun started to set.  It was red and gold and purple at the edges of the horizon.

Allan put his saws in the truck and went home. 

Sad 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.

A man has to make a living.

As 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. 

There was nothing else left to know.

         The old oak was on the ground.

Allan was still alive.  For another moment or two.

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.