All the trees in the neighborhood were dying. It was autumn, and the leaves of all the deciduous trees faded from greens to yellows to deep oranges to browns. They rustled in the wind fluttered to the earth, gathering in piles that the wind swept from yard to yard, across sidewalks and driveways and all down our cul-de-sac.
Lots of people thought the trees were just preparing for winter, but they were dying. Some wouldn’t be convinced until the spring – my neighborhood can be stubborn like that. But their trunks and appendages were gray, sickly and brittle, and their little twig fingers cracked and crumbled, rotted through and dried out. I could see this all very plainly.
My neighbor, Ed Holland, came out to ask me what I was doing. Ed was a good neighbor, most of the time. He had a poorly maintained swimming pool in his backyard , which he allowed my kids to use whenever they wanted. I never bothered him about it, but he would let at least three or four issues of the Huntington Tribune pile up in his yard before he retrieved them. Once, he ran over a whole stack of them with his riding lawnmower, but only once.
Anyways, I told Ed that all the trees had to come down, on account of them being dead, and that I’d be happy to help him with his yard when mine was clear. He told me it was just fall.
He stopped by again later that week, to make sure none of my trees fell toward his property when I cut them down.
Cutting down trees isn’t an easy job, especially big ones. First, you make a partial cut through the trunk, parallel to the ground. This is tough, especially if you have a relatively small chainsaw. Next you need to make an angled cut that connects with the first cut, to make a wedge. It’s critical that you make these cuts on the side in which you want the tree NOT to fall. The tree begins to groan and snap over the buzz of the chainsaw as the two cuts meet. Large trees are very top heavy, and they fall to the ground deliberately, like a man with a bullet in his shin.
The tree trunks are colossal and immovable. When standing upright, they take up very little space, but when laid out across the yard, they are tremendous, like the carcass of a giant squid, washed up from the beach.
Ed stopped by the house one night and asked my wife how I was doing. She mentioned that I was struggling, and I was, to an extent. But, as it’s important to put up a brave face, I said the tree removal was difficult, but going about as smoothly as could be expected. I would be done by the end of the month.
Once each tree was felled – there were sixteen scattered about my two-acre lot – I revisited each one and trimmed off the branches. With a fair amount of effort, I chopped them into manageable portions and moved them out to the backyard, where I burned them in massive piles, with their leaves.
Likewise, I was able to eliminate the stumps. To remove a stump, you drive the chainsaw as deep into its heart as possible, to create a pattern of grooves across it. This puts your body in an awkward position, thrusting the saw downward, and the machine wants to jump out of your hands when it catches on tougher parts of the stump. I nearly lost several fingers/legs as I performed this step, but emerged relatively unscathed.
Next, you saturate that network of grooves with gasoline. This step is easy. I had sawed all the grooves at once, and likewise lit each of the sixteen stumps at the same time. It’s best to toss the match toward the stump and run. Once they start burning, they smolder for between one and three days, and produce and enormous amount of smoke if the wood isn’t completely dry. And the stumps were not dry at all.
On the first day the stumps burned, three people from the area called the fire department to my neighborhood. As you can image, sixteen damp tree stumps, burning furiously on gasoline-fed fires, produce an equivalent amount of smoke to that of a small factory or apartment building when consumed in flames. The third time, the fire department only called my house, and I had a long talk with the fire chief. He’s very nice. His daughter is in the same ballet class as mine.
The second day the stumps burned, my wife grew very angry, and compared our lot to the pit of an active volcano. I disagreed, and offered that it was more like a lot of large, silent tea kettles steaming at once, which was a pleasant thought to me. She left to go shopping, and I considered for a period the prospect of sixteen giant cups of tea.
On the third day the stumps burned, Ed Holland came over. He stated his reasonableness and willingness to help me, as a good neighbor. He explained neighborly responsibilities, and the subdivision’s charter, and brought up several times the number of years which he had known me. I was surprised to find it had been six years, which really had gone by quite quickly, and I noted that to him. Quite unreasonably, he suggested that my collection of smoldering stumps should be extinguished, perhaps by pouring water on them, or capping them with garbage cans.
He explained that the garbage cans would suffocate the fires and put them out.
I explained that the stump burning process was almost complete, and it’s better to put up with a few days of smoke then end up with a bunch of dead trees in the spring.
Ed Holland didn’t see it that way. He was still clinging the strange notion that the trees were just hibernating for the winter, that the leaves would grow back in the spring, even though they were clearly dead. It made me sad, and I said so (that I was sad), and Ed Holland left and walked back to his house, which was mostly obscured by the smoke.
I looked forward to the spring.
Jon Mau lives in a house, in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, IL, with a family he is currently in the process of cultivating. To what end? No one knows. For the meantime, he is perfectly happy (and suited, what’s more) to write for Untoward Magazine thanklessly; remember his once popular metal blog,Jon’s World of Delusion and continue serving out his “dour, tedious sentence,” i.e. tiny gray cog of the workaday world.