The Branch.

There was a windstorm here a few months ago. I went out into the yard while I was home and began helping my father move limbs away from our large, ancient cedar.

Cedars are great trees, as long as they stay outside, where the colonies of ants that seem to live for no other purpose than to travel up and down the trunks, and the faint smell of unwashed cat that never quite leaves the bark are unnoticeable and only the majesty and grandeur of the tree are impressed upon your vision from a distance.

He cut away with the chainsaw, pulling out damaged and dead lower limbs, and I put my packmule mentality to work, and began silently hauling branches to the road. We worked without complaint or commentary for maybe 45 minutes. Doing and being and not minding much that our muscles had begun to warm up, and the sun was beginning to remind us that winter was coming to a close soon.

Our dog hovered about. Wanting the attention but respecting the work. Slowly the lower branches cleared, and Dad got out a ladder and propped it against the trunk to reach a few feet higher. Soon these too were cleared until just one branch remained.

One large old limb, once proud, now broken off 18 or 20 feet up, maybe 4 feet from the trunk. Its tip now extended to the lowest level of limbs and so we grabbed hold and tried to pull it free, but it was still firmly attached, just cracked, at that break.

I frowned and suggested that I could climb the tree and knock the branch down from above. My father consented and I sent him to get a handsaw. I would need one hand to cling to the trunk, and would rather not try and weild a chainsaw one-handed even in perfect condition, at ground level.

He returned and handed the saw up to me, then I continued my climb. I was enjoying myself. Climbing is second nature to Alabama boys, and it had been too long since I'd worked my way up a tree like an explorer. It had been years since I had requested that the ancient limbs support me and let me use them to find a view far better than the one on the ground. Hooking a leg here, scrabbling for purchase against the soft, stringy bark there, I made my way up. Finally I wrapped my legs around available branches on the trunk, and sawed in my precarious position until I finally felt and heard and saw the snap and seperation and the branch slid away from the tree, and fell to earth.

I climbed down, dusted myself off, and we continued cutting until the branch was dissassembled, and the yard clear again.

Then, two weeks ago, I went with my father and we visited my grandfather in St. Louis. His 80th birthday was three months ago. He's still active, and he and my grandmother still tend to their small lot carefully. They have a beautiful yard, and it keeps them healthy.

Along their property runs a drain-field for the St. Louis water company, so no-one can build there, and between this field and their house is a small incline and a thin forest of trees. Tall oaks of maybe thirty to fifty feet. At the foot of these oaks is a dense, heavy thicket of honeysuckle bush and other wild shrubs that creates a rough 8 foot high hedge, maybe 12 or 15 feet thick. The wind had recently snapped a limb out of one of the oaks. 30 feet long, perhaps, and 25 feet up, it connects to the tree. It's resting now in the hedge. The diffusion of its weight allowing the hedge to crouch just a bit and support all its weight. It's a clean break at the top, but the tip is wedged between another limb and the trunk, keeping it from falling clear of the tree where we can get to it.

Between the three of us, we are going to try and pull out this limb safely, so it doesn't come loose some other time and damage the house or hurt one of them while they work in the yard.

I carefully remove my outer shirt and fold it before wading into the thicket in an Athletic T and jeans, worn combat boots leaving sharp shapes in the cool, moist loam. I pop up near the base of the tree, and dad tosses me the rope. We loop it around one of the larger Ys in the branch, and try to pull it down where we can get to it, but the hedge resists and the branche is still wedged tightly at the top. Our rope, worn from other endeavours decades earlier, snaps.

I head back into the hedge. I tell Dad and my Grandfather that I'm going to try to clear away some of the hedge, so that we can pull more easily, because the bushey end of the branch is trapped and suspended in the upper level of the hedge.

I climb up, resting my feet on fragile branches that would never support my weight if there weren't such a network of them, and work my way out across the hedge until I'm in among the bushey end of the branch. Until it looks like I'm inside it, like it's a hand reaching down over me, with the long branch serving as the arm.

I know what I'm about to do, but I can't explain it to my ancestors because they'd say I was crazy and it wasn't safe, so I simply start. I grab hold of the branch just beneath a Y for balance, and begin kicking the bush tops of the hedge out from under the edge of the branches with hard, sharp stomps of my boots. The hedge begins to give way, and I can feel the branch shifting around me. Trying to find spaces in the hedge that still support it's weight. I grip the branch tighter and begin to lift myself, adding my weight to the weight of the branch, and continuing the strike out at the bushes below me.

Finally there is the snap and the final shift, and I can feel that the hand in which I am clasped is driving down, towards the ground below me. The branch is free. In one smooth motion everything I know about sacrifice-falls comes into play. I'm letting my feet kick free, and up, in front of me. I've pivoted so my back is towards the ground and I'm gripping the branch, bringing it with me, welcoming it downwards to the soft earth. As I'm rushing towards the dirt, I'm dimly aware of the exclamations of my father and grandfather outside the hedge, but I know it doesn't matter. It'll all be fine and they'll think it was a lucky accident.

The roaring descent of the branch through the hedge is halted as it's weight settles into lower limbs, with it's upper portion now free of the trunk. I continue for a moment longer, to the floor of the thicket, resting there without a scratch on me.

I clamber from the wreckage of the thicket and smile. "Well. The branch is down."

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


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