On Taking Down a White Pine

Famously, Henry Thoreau built his house in the woods from “some tall, arrowy white pines” that he cut down “still in their youth.” And, less famously, a page or so later in Walden, he contends, “Before I had done I was more friend than foe of the pine tree…having become better acquainted with it.” Perhaps. I’ve had Thoreau’s experience and passage in mind recently as I’ve felt my own imperative to cut down a pine. Here’s that story.

It’s a mid-afternoon in early August when the white truck with WellTree, the company logo, on it rolls up. It’s a bucket truck, and it’s followed by a bulky-bodied cousin dragging an industrial-sized chipper (think Fargo). Two thirty-something men with orange headphones around their necks step down from the trucks in our driveway and begin to size up a large white pine on the front lawn; I walk out to meet them and redirect them to the pine with four leaders on the fringe of the driveway. A few second pass. “Geeze, Jeff,” one says under his breath. “This time of day?”

Pine Presence - this one with 2 leaders stayed.

Pine Presence – this one with 2 leaders stayed.

Jeff is WellTree’s owner, and a few hours ago, he appeared and wondered if his guys could begin on this tree a day early (One of their two bucket-trucks was in for repair, and they had two bucket jobs for tomorrow). “Sure,” I’d said.

And so his guys have arrived, but the 80-foot tree before and above them is not a mid-afternoon tree. “We were expecting something smaller,” the man, who will turn out to be the sawyer, says. Fifteen minutes later, the bucket truck is nosed up to the pine’s trunk and, headphones tight to his ears, he’s lifting off as the mechanical arm unflexes; he seems to fly up into the tree like an actor carried over stage by invisible wires. Thirty feet up, he fires up his saw and trims a spreading branch at the halfway point; then, he shifts the bucket five feet to his left, leans out with one arm and cuts the rest of the limb; it drops to the driveway with a body sound you feel through your feet. The usual day with its usual decisions goes away.

Feeling agitated and vague, I go inside to work; I can’t sit still. The saw snarls. Then the chipper’s motor adds its chewing bass note. I’m up pacing. I feel like the tree, I think; “well, that’s silly,” I say out loud. I sit again, read a sentence, then reread it, wonder what it’s about, can’t recall. “I feel like the tree,” I say aloud. The saw snarls again. The tree’s day has arrived. I have summoned it.

Taking down this white pine has not been a whimsical decision. We’ve been in our house for 11 years, and early on, noting the pine’s lean toward and over that house, we had some branches trimmed as guard against our regular ice storms. That seemed to suffice. And yes, it dripped pitch steadily on whatever was beneath it, but like all trees, as I swept its needles up every so often, it grew neighborly. Or I grew neighborly. But earlier this summer Ray, the man who helps us with our plants, called our attention to a seam in the trunk’s center; that wet, dark line appeared on both sides, and when you stood next to the trunk, the whole tree leaned over you in the direction of the house. “If this were my house,” said Ray, “I’d have that looked after.” And so, in this era when storms seem to have intensified and a new fungus has nipped at local pines’ needles, we called WellTree to have a look.

To begin with, this pine has four leaders, which any follower will tell you is three too many. I learn that pines growing without the tight neighborliness of other pines tend in this direction; they spread into available sky. But as they reach size all this spreading weight begins to pull the central trunk apart; the seam Ray pointed out is likely sign of the leaders’ branching out.

I look up through our clerestory windows. There’s more light in the sky; I go outside to watch. More limbs fall. The two machines snarl and growl, the smaller feeds the larger. Wood chips fly into the truck’s covered body; each chip is smaller than a thumbnail. I realize that I am sad. And once I’ve said “sad” to myself, as a I lean against our car’s body watching, the feeling takes hold deeply. The bucket moves like a conjurer’s arm. More pieces fall; tons remain upright. This, I realize, is going to take some time.

It’s nighttime. The men and their trucks have left. Two leaders of the pine remain at their full 80 feet. It’s raining lightly. I feel tears seep from my eyes. The sadness feels unalloyed, pure. What have I done? I ask. I want to look away; I can’t.

There is explanation; there is sense to be made: I’ve just retired from a 40-year teaching career and its everyday touch of youth and its fast-growing leaders. We’ve moved 130 miles from the school where we lived. Every day I press a littler farther into a shorter future. But really? That’s maudlin, and there’s as much to celebrate as there is to mourn, more really.

And there isn’t explanation. I’ve run the saw, felled trees, sometimes 10s of them in a day; I’ve burned wood for heat. I’ve lived in End-of-the-road New Hampshire in a wood-heated, or at least warmed, house.

Perhaps, I think, the time it’s taking offers some echo of just how long this pine has been aloft, stretching a little each day for the light in the sky, thickening to itself in rings over years. Perhaps it’s because I’ve ordered this, like some near general, and now I must sit in my bunker and watch my orders played out. Perhaps.

On the second morning, it takes longer. The two remaining leaders must be trimmed carefully – they rise over the neighborhood’s wires. And then, bringing their bodies down must happen in alternating ten-foot sections, with the rope tied off to the other leader-trunk. Flakes of sawdust float like a storm-ending flurry of snow.

Whittled now down to 40-foot stalk of pine. With our neighbor, Claude, I’m out watching this final trunk pulled down onto a cross-hatching of its brother stems laid out to protect the lawn some from the final fall. Post-image: after it comes down, and after the trunk is cut into eight-foot lengths, the sawyer is running the hydraulic arm that clasps and lifts each log into the truck’s body; when he raises the section with the seam in it, the log spins, and I can see that the seam goes all the way through the trunk; also, as the log rises a trail of liquid drips steadily from it – too fluid and frequent to be pitch, it must be some watery intermediate: yes, it drips like blood, but it also is some harbinger of rot.

The work order calls for this “low stump” to be left. We’ve said we’ll live with this before deciding what’s next. Now, in the aftermath, I’ve taken a seat there. First I’ve counted the rings, noting the flush years and the lean, saying the numbers aloud to keep from losing my place, then recounting to this: 63. Mild surprise – older, I thought, say in its 80s. The column of air above me where the pine was weighs little, best measured in ounces; the bushes and nearby trees eye the new open space.

Pine Absence

Pine Absence

Early evening of pine-absence: sunlight punctuated by distant thunder; the light gives way to a faux-dusk. A storm is lumbering in from the north. It breaks: flashed light, immediate thunder, rain that obscures everything beyond the yard – is there room for air amid such water? The backyard pines toss their branches in the furious air; the maples buck up high. I feel washed free.

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Return to Two-Boulder Hill

By Corinne H. Smith

I last led a nature writing walk to Two-Boulder Hill at the end of March. Back then, we had to walk around a few patches of ice, but we still had a terrific time. (See http://thoreaufarm.org/2014/04/a-visit-to-two-boulder-hill/ for the whole story.)

What a difference three and a half months can make! During The Thoreau Society’s Annual Gathering in mid-July, three of us took the same walk. Well, it can never be the SAME walk. We followed the same general path, and we witnessed the sights and sounds of Summer this time.

Charles and Lucy and I met at Thoreau Farm and began walking north. After we passed the Gaining Grounds fields and the woods behind them, we reached a little-used access road. Here we caught sight of flowers that like to live in these kinds of disturbed areas: the yellow bird’s foot trefoil, yarrow, tiny Deptford pinks, and Queen Anne’s lace. We watched as the smallest butterfly we’d ever seen lighted upon a small dark log. Upon further inspection, we thought that its perch may have been coyote scat. We had indeed approached Wildness pretty quickly.

On this steamy July day, with no clouds in the sky, the sunlight was too strong for us to stand in one place for very long. We walked along the trail and looked around for a shady spot to sit. We ended up just plopping down in the middle of the path, only an arm’s length away from one another. But we all had writing experience, and we quickly got ourselves into the proper frames of mind. We watched, we listened, and we quietly wrote in our journals.

We were surrounded by a dense forest that the wind brought to life. Breezes fluttered through all of the trees and branches above us. Lucy noted later that it sounded as if we were sitting at the edge of a big green ocean, with waves of leaves cooling us off instead of water drops.

After about fifteen minutes, I caught a hint of familiar flute-like tones. No! Was it possible? Had we been discovered by Henry David Thoreau’s favorite bird, the wood thrush?

I waited a few seconds, and the call came again. I was sitting a little closer to Charles, and I whispered to him, “I don’t believe it.” He cocked his ears and listened, and we heard the song again. Charles understood and nodded. He lifted his binoculars to see if he could see the bird. We alerted Lucy, too. Somewhere in the overgrown thicket in front of us, a wood thrush sang its beautiful tidbit song.

Thoreau called the wood thrush “the finest songster of the grove.” He wrote glowingly of the bird and its music. His journal entry for July 5, 1852, puts the thrush on an especially high pedestal, for the length of a full long paragraph. “Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring,” he said. It was true. The temperature suddenly became more tolerable for us. We listened as the bird came and went: always out of sight, but always sharing its music. I scribbled a rough transcription of the thrush’s jagged but magical melody line:

thrushsong

(You can hear the typical wood thrush song on Cornell’s All About Birds web site at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/wood_thrush/id.)

Eventually I glanced at my watch. It was time to start walking back. I told my companions that we had to leave. Charles looked at me and said, “I could stay here all day.” Lucy and I felt the same way. Now THAT’s the sign of a worthwhile nature-watching and writing outing. Reluctantly we got up, brushed ourselves off, stretched our legs, and sauntered back to Thoreau Farm.

Charles was inspired to write a poem about our forest visitor.

Wood Thrush

Sitting in woods listening for sounds –
airplanes the winds shifting in the trees
cicada catbird then the faint
silvery voice, “come to me” “come to me”
the winds blow hard tossing treetops
we wait longer then the bird is nigh
“come to me!” yet closer “come to me!!”
I aim binoculars cannot see him
then silence — only the wind remains
this shy liquid-voiced singer
is the soul of the listening forest
~ Charles T. Phillips

This was indeed a day that the three of us will remember. And all we really did was take a walk in the woods.

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Outward or Upward Bound

One of the writing projects I’ve taken on is a biannual column about mountain accidents and searches and rescues for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Appalachia Journal. The column’s primary purpose is educational – if we read the stories of those who fall or go astray in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, we may become wiser walkers. At least that’s the theory. The column’s readership also knows the lure of disaster stories. Along with these stories of misfortune and perseverance in the backcountry, I offer analysis of what went wrong (and right) in each instance. And I hear from readers who like to point out their own takeaways and share their own stories.

So during the warm ease of summer’s heartland, I take some days to revisit mountain tales accrued during the winter past; the column then will appear at the outset of winter next, and, theoretically, its readership then goes wiser into the winter hills.

The Winter Hills - White Mountains

The Winter Hills – White Mountains

The other day, as the rain pattered companionably on the roof, I was mulling over an incident, and, at the same time, wondering what familiar walk I would take later when the rain let up. This wondering brought Henry Thoreau to mind. Famously and early in “Walking,” Thoreau sets his criteria for a walk: “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”

It is, of course, an “extreme statement,” and in its extremity designed to jar us from the complacency of routine – a little work, a little walk…ho hum…what’s for dinner?

The incident I was contemplating and then writing up was about a college student, who during finals week, went to the mountains, purportedly to clear his head. Here’s the summary, written in the column’s reportorial style:

On December 12th at 3:00 a.m., New Hampshire Fish and Game received a call about a missing hiker in the Franconia Notch area. David F., a Lyndon State College student, had left school to go hiking and climbing in that area the day before. He was reported to be well equipped. David had also given his roommate his intended route, and Fish and Game officers decided that he might simply be delayed and to give him time to hike out on his own. Morning temperatures were very cold (on Mount Washington at 5:17 a.m. it was -15 with the wind registering 73 mph; a windchill advisory was in effect) and there was still no sign of David F., so Fish and Game began to organize a search, which would necessarily be broad and people intensive. At 12:30 p.m., as the search was getting under way, Fish and Game learned that hikers on the Falling Waters trail had come across David not far from the summit of Little Haystack.

Fish and Game believed that David F.’s condition merited an airlift off the ridge by a New Hampshire National Guard helicopter. He was treated for mild hypothermia at a local hospital. In an interview with Fish and Game, David said that he had begun his climb on the Falling Waters trail at 9:00 a.m. on the 11th, diverging later to climb an off-trail drainage called Lincoln’s Throat; eventually he became lost, spent the night in his sleeping bag and wrapped in a space blanket and tarp, then found his way to the Falling Waters trail in the morning. When found, David F. was without his pack and gear, saying he must have lost them that morning.

Such a report sets off head-wagging among the mountain cognoscenti, as it should – conventions violated, personal ability overestimated, etc. But most of us recognize too the need to slip the trap – whether it is a spate of final exams, a daily job or the overly-civil layerings of language over experience – and go free. “Westward I go free,” wrote Thoreau later in his essay, and it takes only a slight change to say, upward I go free. I remember that, even as I point out a student’s errors in pursuit of that freedom.

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