Our weekend house on the upper Delaware River is a hundred and thirty years old, give or take. Directly behind it is a grassy incline that quickly turns into a wooded mountainside. One hundred and thirty years ago, give or take, a carpenter farmer built this house with his own hands. Now it’s occupied by us: weekenders from The City. Our hands do other things. Building houses obstinate enough to withstand nearly a century and a half of northeast winters is not among them.
In the long wet season that runs from late winter into early summer, you could hear not just the pounding of the rain but the sound of falling tree limbs, cracking, thudding, echoing throughout the woods, reverberating against the walls of this unfathomably sturdy plank house. We tend to close it up for the winter, when our son’s extracurricular activities keep us in town. But come Fourth of July weekend we return, to find that the hairline of our wood has continued to recede, thinning out, revealing more and more of its craggy scalp.
With our return is the discovery of fallen branches throughout the property. Not only in the back, but from the ancient maples that run along our driveway out front: often these limbs are hundreds of pounds of awkward; they scatter lattice-like along the drive, immovable, making it impossible to reach the house by car.
The appropriate tool for tree limb removal is a chainsaw. For small dead branch removal, my handsaw has served me well but could take the better part of a hot and sweaty day for bigger jobs. This summer, for my birthday, my wife presented me with my very own tool of mass destruction: a Stihl MS171 chainsaw, “fuel-efficient with reduced-emission engine technology.” (See Figure A.) It's good to know that the tool I'll be using to tear down nature is eco-friendly.
The Stihl MS171 is a beginner’s model, perfect for around-the-house jobs, clearing the wooded area around the property, carving up limbs obstructing the driveway; we’ll have enough campfire wood for many summers' worth of s’mores.
It’s a surprisingly heavy tool, the Stihl MS171. It’s kind of like holding an actual gun. Those who handle a pistol for the first time report it to be much heavier than it looks on TV. Same with this chainsaw. It’s what my father would have called “shtarker” – solid, strong, powerful – and could do a good bit of damage in the wrong hands. Were he alive, he’d be surprised to see me holding one. He’d be surprised to see me anywhere near it. In fact, I think this whole country house thing was a bit of a puzzler for him. For one thing, we were not, what you might call, an outdoorsy family. We didn't load up the RV and head cross country to hike through Bryce Canyon if hiking through Bryce Canyon is even a thing people do. I don't know. That was somebody else's family. We were, what you might call, risk-averse. Fearful, even. A sponge could put an eye out if you weren’t careful.
For another thing, I’m not at all handy. In fact, I’m pretty much hopeless when it comes to building or making or fixing. And I’m not exactly agile: on my son’s phone, the name attached to my number isn’t Dad, it’s Butterfingers.
But my wife and I have had this house for sixteen years now and even to me my urban ineptitude is getting old.
Okay, so maybe I won’t be constructing a new deck or replacing the roof, like, ever. But surely I can cut some wood. Everyone does it. Brooklyn hipsters with weekend homes up here do it. Hipsters! Why should I be the one whose skull gets severed by the force of the MS171’s kickback, as warned about in the instruction manual which I read three times. (See Figure B.)
As a writer I use both hands and clearing logs is not worth compromising my livelihood. I have a family. I have responsibilities. Is this whole chainsaw thing a necessity? No. Is this an act of recklessness? Perhaps. Or am I simply a wuss? Definitely.
I’ve had the chainsaw for a week now and have yet to start it up. It sits there, in my (er-hem) tool shed, like a lumberjack’s version of Audrey II, mocking me. Daring me. Diminishing me. What are you waiting for, you big wuss? You read the manual. You even had the kid at the store give you a tutorial. Feed me, Seymour! Let’s get cutting!
I can do this. And I will. Tomorrow.
But tonight’s dreams are vivid. There are slips and falls and kickbacks. There are ugly gashes and severings and blood and permanent scars. I wake up too early and lie in bed, restless. My options are to return the thing or obey Audrey III whose taunting pre-dawn whispers I can hear all the way from the shed.
By sunrise, I’m up. I grab Audrey III, toss her into the back of the Volvo, and return to the shop from whence she came. The owner approaches me.
“My wife bought this for me," I tell him. "The kid who works here showed me how to start it, but it’s been a week and I forgot. I think I may have flooded it.” The owner takes the Stihl MS171 from me, holds it in the air (the manual specifically says to not do that!), pulls the rip cord like a freakin’ zen master of the chainsaw and sets the tool a-hummin’. Like the country uncle I never had he walks me through the start up process, yet again: Here’s what you do when you start it up cold. This is how to start it when it’s already warmed up. Never start it the way I did; keep it on the ground, put your foot here, hold it down with this hand, pull the cord with this one. He takes his time and answers every question without condescension. “Enjoy it. You’ll get a good workout from it, believe me,” he says. “Come back if you have any more questions.”
But I’m done with questions. Nightmares be gone, it’s time to feed the beast. On the way home I pick up goggles and a hardhat. Sensible precautions.
Within an hour I’ve fired up Audrey III without incident, cleared away huge limbs and scraggly dead branches that really could put somebody’s eye out. The old man was right: it is a workout. There's a reason there are no gyms in the country. I’m soaked with sweat but pumped with adrenaline and I can’t seem to stop. If to a man with a new hammer everything looks like a nail, to a man with a new power tool that old saw increases exponentially. I stand back from a line of trees like an ice sculptor examining his work. I spot areas I missed and return to them, refining, pleased. Then I search for new targets.
Waving my weapon around I’m like Elmer Fudd in search of wabbits, and ready to do some damage.
For a lot of people birthdays are unwelcome blips on the calendar. After some anticipation they arrive, there’s often a disappointing yet overly-expensive-for-what-it-is meal involved, and then poof…gone until next year. I embrace mine as an opportunity for growth. It would be very easy to stick with what I know, be good with my talents and my deficiencies, and hire someone to clean up the dead trees around the house. But there are still way too many things I want to do, want to know how to do. Not big things. I'm not going back to medical school. I'm not going to start getting into mixed martial arts. Simple things. Like operating a chainsaw.
Next year: bicycle maintenance and repair.