Friday, January 06, 2006

The EarthQuaker and John Henry


I look up the trunk of the young Ponderosa pine as it stretches towards the clear blue sky above. The tree is straight as can be, and no breeze stirs her branches. I tilt my head down again and the sweat that has condensed in the top of my helmet runs off the brim and drips on the muffler of the ancient Stihl chainsaw roaring away in my hands. The droplets of sweat evaporate instantly off the hot metal, as if to say, the sweat off your brow don’t mean nothing to the Machine. The steel plate in my right wrist, legacy of a motorcycle accident years ago, throbs with the saw’s vibration and the blue tinged two-stroke exhaust gives me heartburn. I am doing the back cut now, having notched the tree in the direction I want it to fall. Slowly, she begins to topple. I hit the kill switch on the saw, and step back. The young tree, about forty feet tall, falls in slow motion, and lands softly on the forest floor. The saw is still buzzing away in my hand, though the kill switch is clearly in the “OFF” position. I throw the choke lever and the saw sputters and dies. Blessed silence.

“Thanks for your beauty and your life,” I say aloud to the tree, patting its now horizontal trunk. I sit down on the stump. I want to sacralize this sacrifice, but it is so profane that my words just seem like sentimentality.

In disgust, I carry the saw back up to the truck. I take off the helmet, bandana, earplugs, Kevlar chaps, long sleeve shirt and safety glasses. I drink a little water. It is about time to fuel the saw. When you are falling trees, it is good to put gas in the saw before it runs out. There are times when you don’t want to hear that skip, stutter, stall of a two-stroke motor running out of juice, like when a tree is just about cut through, and a breeze might send it any which way, rather than where you want it, while you are fussing with gasoline and two-stroke oil ratios.

As I reach for the gas can, my hand falls on the old double bit axe that I have put in the truck. I have sharpened one side to a keen edge for falling, and the other to a tougher working edge for limbing and knots. The handle is oiled with linseed oil, and a fresh steel wedge has tightened up the head nicely. It’s not a Wetterlings, or a Gransfors Bruks, but it is a good old American axe. It has a wonderful heft to it, light and strong, perfectly balanced. It weighs about four and a half pounds. The chainsaw weights twenty. I eye the next tree to drop in the thinning project. It is about the size of a telephone pole at the base. I need to drop it very precisely so that it doesn’t damage the trees around it. I put my gloves back on and pull up my suspenders.

A clean white chip flips out of the notch in the tree and lands at its base. The axe makes a solid thunk as it bites in, first from above, and then from below, a neat chip with every second stroke. The thunk is the only sound in the forest, besides my regular breathing. I get a rhythm going. I’ve never actually falled a tree with an axe before, but it instantly seems safer and easier than the chainsaw. I do get one bad bounce, however, and the axe comes rebounding back, glancing off the toe of my stout Wesco Jobmaster logger’s boot—that’s why Wesco makes ‘em like that. ( I adjust my stance so as to keep my toes out of harm’s way, and start on the back cut. I am surprised at how well I can use the axe ambidextrously. Not only are all chainsaws built for right handers, but if I tried the thing backward, I’m sure I’d acquire the nickname “Stumpy” pretty quick.

Chainsaws are also notoriously polluting. Noise pollution is one form, and then there are emissions. A brand new chainsaw pollutes as much in an hour with a 39cc engine as a modern car driven 100 miles with a two litre engine! Once the saw is fifty hours old, it may pollute twice as much as it did new. And, you’re standing in that cloud of noise and poison the whole time you are working with the thing. Infernal combustion indeed!

After several more axe blows, there is a sound, almost too subtle to be considered sound. It is a feeling almost, coming up from the ground. I pause. The sound is clearly audible now, and then I can definitely see the trunk of the tree leaving the vertical. I step back, the axe responding instantly to its “OFF” switch, and watch the tree fall just where I had intended. This time when I thank the tree there is a true sense of reverence, respect, and gratitude.

What the Bleep is the EarthQuaker doing falling trees? I have been wondering that myself. The Sierra Friends Center got a USDA grant to do “timber stand improvement” on our 230 acres. We have planted nearly 3000 trees in the last two years, and cleared areas for that planting. What I am doing now is “thinning.” I cut trees that are under eight inches diameter at breast height if they are close enough to impair the growth of other trees that are more desirable as timber trees. The added benefits are firewood, a decreased fuel load for forest fires (we live in the highest rating of fire danger in the insurance industry’s system of assessment), and paid work for Carl to do. In a natural forest, there would be succession and we would just harvest the trees that matured according to sustainable forestry practices—our Timber Harvest Plan (THP) is very conservative and all officially approved. Because this whole area was mined and logged pretty brutally in the (to trees) not so distant past, there is not a lot of generational diversity in the forest, so there can be five “pecker pole” pines all within five feet of each other, and they impair one another’s growth. So, I am being an Ent and choosing which trees to leave, and which to cull. I actually have spent more time brush clearing for fire safety (eliminating fuel ladders) than I have been falling these trees. If the land hadn’t been logged, and if we were able to let it burn naturally, it would be totally unnecessary for me to do any of this work.

The wages for Carl part of the project is looking a bit spurious as well. This is hard, hot, dangerous, loud, poison-oakey work for a wage that after taxes really isn’t worth much more than saner work that I could do without sweating so much. The Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World or I.W.W. See: who started my union would be disgusted with me for working with such old, funky equipment alone in the woods for poor wages and no benefits. I’m a bit disgusted myself. I wonder if I need to go see the high priest of Fellow Workers, Utah Phillips, for absolution. He lives right here in town. (

I’m going back out to the woods soon. I have honed my axe, and I've got my Welsh suspenders on ( In the old days, if a fellow showed up on a logging crew with a belt instead of suspenders, they sent him home as too green to be doing such dangerous work. Besides, suspenders are Plain ( It is beautiful day to work outdoors.

I might just leave that chainsaw in the truck. It only has one advantage over the axe: it is quicker. And if I practice with the axe, that advantage will diminish. I’ve seen enough of where an emphasis on so-called industrial efficiency is leading the human race, and I’m not impressed. However, the USDA grant that is paying my wages is “your tax dollars at pork,” so how do you feel about my doing the job by hand?

When I was a kid, I loved the story and the song of John Henry. This contest between a “steel-drivin’ man” and a steam drill epitomizes the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in the face of the industrial age. In my childhood book, John Henry was a big, pleasant-looking black man with a mighty hammer. He hammered in the mountain, so that blasting charges could be laid and the rock removed to make a tunnel for the railroad.

The fellow who invented the steam drill
Thought that he was mighty fine,
But big John Henry made fifteen feet,
While the steam drill only made nine.

So, John Henry defeated the steam drill in the contest. Many new technologies are like this: the old technology is actually better than the new technology, but we persist with the new technology until it exceeds the old. Horse-drawn farm equipment was very good, reliable and efficient when the first expensive, unreliable, soil-compacting tractors came along. The bow and arrow in skilled hands could be a much better weapon than early muskets which were inaccurate, took forever to load, and occasionally blew up in a person’s face. The cellular phone is a similarly useless pile of poo, but its potential, and its performance when it does work, seduces us. These technologies rob us of precious things, trading “efficiency” for peace, safety, affordability, quiet, sustainability, and a sane pace of life. They require less intelligence, hard work, skill, and patience than the technologies they replace.

In the song about John Henry, this loss is given its due. We learn that:

John Henry hammered in the mountain,
He hammered so his hammer’s strikin’ fire,
But he worked so hard that he broke his mighty heart,
And he laid down his hammer and he died…

So, he dies with honor, on the altar of industrialism as symbolized by the railroads, which were both a product of industrialism, and a powerful instrument of it. To me it is particularly poignant that John Henry died of a heart attack. Lest we think that only the blue collar working man is sacrificed to the industrial machine, heart disease is the great killer of white collar cubicle dwellers whose hands are clean and who never sweat.

They carried John Henry to the graveyard
And they laid him with his hammer in the sand
And every locomotive that goes rumblin’ by
Says, 'There lies a steel-drivin’man,
Lord, Lord!
There lies a steel drivin’ man.'

Today the EarthQuaker will take a page from John Henry's book, and do his work with muscle power. I'm gonna skip the heart attack part though...


Anonymous Robin M. said...

Dear Carl,

Do skip the heart attack part. You've been eating better than John Henry probably ever did, and you've no call to go working that hard. The federal investigation into your death on a USDA project would waste more of our tax dollars than any amount of lollygagging you might be prone to.

Plus we want to see you on Saturday.

I think more young people ought to have a little time to chop wood. I never felled a tree with an axe, but I split my share of firewood. I knew exactly how hard I could swing that hammer, how many rounds I could split, and I didn't have to go around breaking other people's property to find out how strong I was.

In a few years, maybe I can bring my boys up for a few lessons from Uncle Carl...

5:19 PM, January 08, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your chainsaw's dBA level is probably 90. Your regular forest level is about 35-45dBA depending on the area and the amount of foot traffic. The entire area would be getting twice the amount of noise pollution than it typically gets by use of that thing. Be good to those ears!

9:41 PM, January 08, 2006  
Blogger timschon said...

Speak to your father about getting a bow saw.
Tim S

6:21 AM, January 18, 2006  
Anonymous Mica said...

I'm bringing Noah up because after seeing the picture, he can't wait to learn how to use an ax. It is as if this 8 year old has been waiting his whole life to learn how to really cut something a part.

6:44 PM, February 02, 2006  
Blogger cherice said...


Good to read you again! I just stumbled across a link to your blog from another one and thought I'd say hi. New Jersey's not as exciting as your tree-chopping, bike-riding life looks to be at the minute! But school's good.

You can check out my blog if you want.


5:15 PM, February 21, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Carl-

Seems like you are still working at living the good life. Heather and I are making plans to go back to alaska and stay through the winter. 60 below here i come. Check out info about our trip. I would love to get an e-mail from you sometime.


9:40 PM, May 19, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very admirable and thrifty way of living Carl... After watching others for some time, I am this *close* to giving up my car and also going vegetarian myself... it is time we unhook the earth from all the non-sustainable mass consumption.

Dave Rienhart

12:19 PM, December 11, 2006  
Blogger Carl Magruder said...

Hey, David... Did you go to Tahoe Elementary School, have a difficult father with a vintage Triumph automobile, and a doughboy pool in your back yard when you were in second grade?

3:56 PM, December 17, 2006  
Anonymous John Garst said...


Your "John Henry" stanzas are broadly familiar to me but your wording differs slightly from those I've seen elsewhere in every stanza you quote. As a John Henry researcher, I'm mighty interested in versions of the ballad that differ from the mainstream. I'm not sure how much yours does that, but I'd like to know where you got it and I'd like to see the complete text.


John Garst

12:11 PM, June 08, 2007  

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