Saturday, January 23, 2010


By John Ramsey Miller

Last week I mentioned I'd tell you about my experience felling a tree, so I’ll make good but warn you, dear reader, that this is not directly connected to my writing, but what I do between the pages. It's also an explanation as to how I find the material for writing my incompetent characters.

I have a wood-burning fireplace in my living room that opens to play fireplace for our grandkids to roast marshmellows in when they stay over in the winter. When it’s got a bunch of logs burning in it, it will flat run you out of the house and into the yard. We have several acres of trees on the place and we only buy wood to supplement what I cut that is standing dead on the farm.

Okay, maybe I’ve seen too many segments of Ax Men on TV. Those guys drop monumental trees exactly where they want them to hit, and they do it with amazing ease. I love the smell of a fresh cut trees. I have been using a chainsaw most of my adult life, and so I’m not without some experience at it. Two weeks ago I dropped several trees on a nearby farm to help a neighbor lady cut, split and stack firewood. Susie and I joined several of her friends in sub-zero weather to cut dead-standing trees of decent size one recent Saturday. We cut a couple of cords (for you non-woodsman types that is a stack four feet wide, four tall and eight feet long). A cord, while seeming enormous doesn’t last very long if you heat with logs like she does since it’s her only source of fuel. Did I tell you I live out in the woods with my wife, 70 chickens and two dogs?

I’ve had this sixteen-inch-diameter-dead tree standing beside my shop/shed since we moved in and over the three years it has shed rotten limbs like a drunk carrying a four foot tall stack of boxes of chocolates up a flight of stairs in the dark––each barely missing the shed’s tin roof. I hadn’t cut it down previously because due to lean it needed to be tied off near the top and to have increasing winch tension-(I have one of those on my four-wheeler that was in the shop with a blown motor)-put on it to make it fall in a direction it was not inclined by design, physics, and the non-flexible principles of weight distribution and balance to take. When the most major limb fell off a few weeks ago and left it looking like a pole, I decided that, although it was leaning ever so slightly toward a collision with my shed roof, that like the Ax Men, I could cut it so it would have no choice but to buck nature and fall where I desired it to drop.

Taking out my Echo ES 440, with a newly sharpened chain, I stood and peered up studying the fifty odd feet of tree for several long minutes. It was cold, but there was no wind to help or hurt my enterprise, and so I cranked the saw and after revving the hell out of it for Ax-Man effect I carefully cut a perfect and deep watermelon slice out of the debarked trunk. She (we farmers call any inanimate object of substance “she”) was not as rotten through the base as I’d imagined, which was good as it would make nice firewood, and firm centers reduce the danger that it might twist as it was cut through. From slightly above the center of the wedge I started the blade on a downward angle in her backside as to hit the apex of the missing wedge. [Think of the missing wedge as being a wide-open mouth.] Also to make sure I was being an Ax Man I cut in about ten inches and inserted a wedge behind the blade to induce her to fall forward. As I cut I used a small two-pound sledgehammer to drive the shim deeper to nudge the tree so it would more definitely fall where the nose would be pointing if there had been a tree nose above the open mouth.

All went as planned until the cut was almost through to the apex. Unlike the show, my tree defied everything I believed and pinched my saw blade as I was pulling it upward and free. The tree headed backward bound for my shed …and time stood still.

It hit the tin roof under which I normally park my four-wheeler when the engine isn’t blown, my motorized wheelbarrow, and the zero-turn radius mower, which I had moved, just in case. The old gal, despite my efforts at pushing, fell backward the corner of the open structure and she landed on the roof like she had been punched out by a giant. I noticed that my chainsaw was missing its handle, which is never a good thing, so I couldn’t even cut up the tree to get it down in sections. For several minutes I felt almost as let down as I do when I receive a rejection notice from an editor.

I have a shirt that says, “Professional Author. Don’t try this at home.” I should have one printed that says, “Amateur Ax Man….”

Taught me a valuable life lesson. "Life teaches you lessons–boy does it ever!" Just because someone else can do it doesn’t mean I can. Writing isn’t cutting trees, thank God. I don’t know anybody who’s ever harmed more than the English language doing it either. Oh well, like writing, you’ll never know unless you try.


  1. Boy oh boy, does that story bring back some memories. From 97-2000 I was a "Junior Axe-Man" up here in the great wilderness of Alaska. I say junior because I wasn't a real lumberjack, I was the computer tech who couldn't find a job in the Alaska bush and so the local lumber company took me on to "pull-skidder-chain" which is butt-kicking hard work.

    At any rate, I watched hundreds of trees fall and figured I could do it. Then I learned in much greater detail about warp and twist right in my own yard. The fifth tree of the day seemed easy enough. I cut and aimed just like the others, but...well.

    Lucky for everyone east of my house in Salcha Alaska it turns out that eighty foot Alaska White Spruce are fairly brittle at the last ten feet or so. And the electrical power lines were surprisingly flexible. But boy, oh boy...that was one cool shower of sparks.

    Thanks for the story and the memories John.

  2. Wow, that's amazing! 40 chickens! :-) Great tale and an even greater point to be made, John. We all have our talents. Thank goodness they're all different.

  3. Sorry about the shed.

    I have to show this to my husband--the accountant who thinks he's a lumberjack.

  4. I have a friend who has some stories like these and the way he tells them is sooooo funny! One time the tree had been pulled over to be cut and his chainsaw got stuck in the top branches and then the tree got loose and popped back upright, with the entire chainsaw just dangling there! Another time he managed to drop the tree right on his pickup truck! (And that was before the days of cell phones, so he had to walk out to get some help.)

    My husband used to have his own lawn and yard service and has had to deal with kickback from stubborn hedges, with some injuries, so I get real nervous when people fire up the chainsaws!

  5. One of life's lessons is: You rarely know as much as you think you do. I still assume I know everything until it become obvious there's more to a thing than I had been led to believe.

  6. Back when I worked in the real world, whenever someone asked me how my day was going, one of my favorite responses was, "I've had worse--fell out of a tree with a chainsaw once."

  7. after a 30 year career in the emergency room....i would like to thank men who possess both ladders and chain saws....thank you for the job security. i did once lobby that home depot and lowes have a 7 day waiting period b4 issuing these devices. and don't get me started on tree blinds!!! kathy d.