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Russell Wangersky: Where your mind goes, mid axe-swing

Kayla Graham practices for the wood-chopping event with her teammates on the Dalhousie Rams woodsmen team.
Kayla Graham practices for the wood-chopping event with her teammates on the Dalhousie Rams woodsmen team.

I knew it was a bad idea. I mean, I knew it was a bad idea when I was at the point where there was nothing left to do about it but hope that things would turn out all right.

Russell Wangersky

Checking on damage after a major windstorm this past weekend, I found a mature spruce tree that had sheared off about four feet from the ground, leaned into its poplar neighbour, and was caught hanging, tight, branches against branches, waiting to fall. A big enough tree to have arm-thick branches, old enough to have thick hanging tufts of deadman’s beard lichen hanging from those branches.

Mistakes were made. A number of mistakes.

It was noontime, I hadn’t eaten anything, just a cup of coffee on the way out the door. It was cold, and it was windy, and obviously, I wanted to be done. If I left the spruce, it would continue to lean into the poplar, and last weekend’s winds clearly showed how poplars can shed their crowns. Not only that, but there would be a hanging, creaking deadhead waiting to fall across the driveway — on the electric meter-reader, on anyone else. I could come back in a week, and hope things would be fine.

The wind blew, the spruce rocked back forth — one of the two trees creaking like a hinge with every rocking swing.

But it gets worse.

I had a chainsaw.

I was alone.

The road where I parked my car was empty and narrow and coated with globs of ice, and I’d left the car well up the road so I wouldn’t block the single lane that hadn’t seen anything like a plow. It would be hard for anyone passing by to realize I was even there.

The tree was cold, the air was cold, the wind was cold, and I was going to have to notch the tree with the saw on one side, then cut from the other, so it wouldn’t bind on the saw. When I had it cut, I took an axe and swung it, blunt-end first, to knock out the now-cut section. As I did, a thought flickered through my head: this is how people die under falling trees. Especially, I thought, 50-ish-year-old guys who don’t cut down many trees.

Time stops. It actually stops. Some small part of my head thought, in that instant, that a tree can fall anywhere in 360 degrees, and all I really had to do is to avoid some 10 of those degrees, that the other 350 would be fine — sort of like a physics professor calculating how to dodge an already-fired bullet.

Another part of my head just thought — run! Followed by, run where?

Yes, time stops.

And then it speeds up so fast that you’re still stopped and everything else is moving.

The axe kept moving. Butt-end of axe struck length of tree, the jar of it straight up my arms.

Tree came down. Not where I expected — not, luckily, in the 10 degrees I was inhabiting at the time.

I expect anyone who makes a really bad decision has that moment. That moment where they are in mid-action and realize just how badly, how very, very badly things could suddenly go. Needless to say, knowing what I know now, I would have done things differently.

But here’s the point: leave some space in your heart for stupid mistakes and the people who make them. Because we do make them, and sometimes, we’re crushed to paste by hundreds of pounds of fragrant, sap-wet spruce. Other times, we’re not.

The horrible things that can happen to us all probably happen midway through the thought: this is the best option.

The best option – until it isn’t anymore.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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