There is a man in our town who is demolishing a tree. The last of the giant elms that lined thhe village street died a year ago. It stood, gray and leafless , all summer long. Then, in the fall, the power company decided that it had to come down. This same company has, over the years, done grotesque things to the old maples and oaks and horse chestnuts along the road. It has cut great gaping holes through the upper branches, sheared off entire sides, to accommodate the passing wires. Their priorities are often at odds with ours.
In this case, of course, they were right. The dead tree had to go, and down it went, its massive trunk sliced clean through in short order. The fallen tree lies across the field now, its long limbs outstretched, looking for all the world like a slain mastodon. The man who lives in the house across the road estimates it to be about 160 years old. It is his tree, on his property, and he has set to work to cut it up for firewood. It is a prodigious task.
Although they harldy appear to be a match -the ninety-foot tree dwarfs the man -it strikes me that this man and this tree resemble each other. They are both gaunt, gray, and long of limb, and their roots in this village go back many years.
The man is a methodical person. His major interest in recent years has been the painstaking compilation of data on our town's shipbuilding history. We are on a narrow peninsula, reaching fifteen miles out into the bay. Years ago, sailing ships were built in local yards and then eased down on ways across the fields to be launched at high water. These ships plied their trade as cargo vessels the whole world over, and he has documented every one; he knows their names, their builders, their masters, and ultimate destinies. He is now applying the same careful an orderly techniques to the process of turning this colossal carcass in cordwood.
Conical piles of brush have materialized around the periphery of the fallen tree. Tidy stacks of slim elm branches are rising. Soon he will be sown to the thick main branches. Hard work, this. The wood near the center of the tree is still green; it takes a long time for a tree of this size to dry out completely. The wood resists the chain saw, defies the splitting ax. He paces himself, chipping away at the exposed, vulnerable ends of the tree for a short time each day. The tree is diminished almost imperceptibly. There is no hurry. The growing piles of wood are surely more than he will ever need. He carts them across the road in a wheelbarrow and stacks them in his barn to dry. His barn was half full before he started, and so this wood becomes a kind of legacy for his child and grandchild. In times like these, dry wood is considered a gift of worth. This man has seen to it that our maritime not lost, is now seeing to the task of converting the last old elm tree generations.
There is something eminently satisfying about this job. The goal is clearly defined; it will be achieved gence and hard work. Simple virtues, these, and entirely apropriate to the man and to the the task. Our complex world does not always permit us to see a project through from start to finish. Our work is more apt to be fragmented; the final result blurs, shifts, moves out of our control. Cutting up to an old elm is a personal and wholly encompassable undertaking. It will be accomplished in a predictable period of time. One day, I will pass by the field, and both man and tree will be gone. They will no longer be joined in this symbiotic endeavor. Their jobs will will be done, and the completion will be gratifying to us all.