Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year, New View

A few days ago, our tree-trimming friends from Arborscapes came and felled the large silver maple that blocked the circle drive we are creating with the new property next door. It had a short base trunk, then split into several fairly straight, tall trunks about a foot in diameter, and a number of smaller trunks.

The view from the house grounds is startling, a glaring gap where once there was a dense screen of branches. It is a bold and disturbing act to cut a large tree, one that someone lovingly hand planted nearly 4 decades ago. But I know that the branches of the remaining trees will close in the gaping canopy in short new order, once the growing season arrives. We will get used to the new look. And that hole may save a life, compared to visitors having to back their cars onto busy North Street as we currently do.

I paced off the tree; 27 paces, compared to the 40' width of the barn which was only 15 paces. 70 feet??? I'll have to measure again, but thinking of the dimensions of garden beds, it's within reason. Laying on the ground, the whole thing looked much bigger than it had when standing. Like the illusion that the rising moon is larger than the moon directly overhead, perhaps? The recumbent tree is quite daunting, in fact, since I'd told the guys to just lay it down and I'd deal with cutting it up into moveable chunks. Now this tree completely blocked vehicle access to the barn, as well as blocking the incipient driveway.

The felled trunks lay in a neat pile, testimony to skilled and careful work. At one end, a pile of logs; at the other end, a cloud of twigs beset with rusty red buds already beginning to swell. Where to begin?

A friend came today, despite the threat of bitterly cold windy weather, and we set to work. She comes to the farm for the exercise, and the machete is one of her favorite workout machines. We spread out a tarp to pile the twiggy, budded branches on. That made it easy to drag them across the crisp snow to the sheep pen. Wise old Eider knew what to do instantly, and tore into the tasty buds. The lambs had to pick and choose, checking to see if they were all the same, jockeying for position before beginning to eat in earnest.

I donned protective gear--a hard hat with attached hearing protectors and face screen--and ran out the cord for the electric chain saw. Checked the blade tension, topped up the bar oil, began cutting the smaller limbs as she freed them from the chaos of twigs.

Only those who have known me a long time will recognize the hugeness of this fairly ordinary act. Though I've burned wood for decades, and spent hundreds if not thousands of hours working in woodlots, I've never run a chain saw before this past week. In fact, up until very recently I've been terrified of the very idea of running one. Yet today, I began the new year with a bold demonstration of a new self-assurance that has been developing rapidly since my return to the farm a little over a year ago. It is a wonderful feeling of freedom, freedom from the ambient fear that limited my life for so many decades.

But this role reersal was a very strange feeling. Here it was ME in the hard hat, bending to set the droning blade against the soft green wood and watch it slide through, showering big flakes of wood in all directions. And someone else was standing back, watching, ready to offer suggestions or warnings if necessary. Always I have been the stand-back-and-watch person, the one taking in the big picture, clearing away tripping hazards as needed, alert for the first motion of the log that might foreshadow a dangerously unpredicted rolling, settling or springing. I knew instinctively that my role was a critical one. But often I was made to feel like a tag-along kid, a potential danger to myself and others, merely tolerated. I "wasn't really doing anything, just standing and watching" while the guys did the "real" work of sawing.

Now I was the sawyer. I was surprised to experience how the protective gear naturally tended to focus my attention singularly on the cut I was making--the saw and the log being sawn. The hat brim limited my upwards vision; the edges of the face shield blocked my side vision; the ear muffs muted any audible distractions from the world around me. I entered into a narrow tunnel vision. As I prepared the cut, I noted with care the tensions on the branch at hand; nearby twigs and limbs that could interfere with the blade; the direction of fall for the cut-off piece relative to my feet; the lay of the extension cord. As I cut, I watched the edges of the cut to see whether they would pinch the blade, watched for formerly unnoticed hazards, made sure the tip of the saw was clear of any obstructions to avoid kickback. But I could not see the butt end of the long log, nor my companion nearby. I realized a deep gratitude for my companion, my watcher-for-unexpected-motion. My ears, since mine were covered. My eyes, since mine were constrained to watch only the blade and the cut.

Later, a friend spoke of her feeling of helplessness in watching her daughter struggle through difficult life situations. She knew that her daughter had to make her own decisions, live her own life, solve her own problems. But how hard for the mother to refrain from meddling! And even if she did offer suggestions and advice, how unlikely that the daughter would be able to hear her mother's wisdom.

It struck me that when we are in the midst of difficult life circumstances, it is like we are running the chain saw. We may block out extraneous input, just as the earmuffs protect my ears not just from the noise of the saw but from distractions. We focus only on the issues immediately before us, unable to see the big picture or the broader ramifications of our actions. We have to have tunnel vision to do the work we need to do in the moment, even if it means having a limited view.

As a parent or friend of someone struggling, we are like the watcher. It is not our role to decide what to do, how to make the cut--unless the sawyer asks us for advice. We can only stand back, watching the big picture, ready to shout if true danger is imminent, available to dial 911 if things get totally out of control. Ready to be there if needed, but to hope to not be needed, and to let things proceed without our control. It is a hard role, to be the watcher. Yet a vital one.

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