Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Weeds, War and Words

A few weeks ago, I rode past a short Hispanic man whacking at a giant, four-trunked cottonwood stump with an ax. I could not recall the great tree, but the remaining stump was impressive — approximately the size of a Geo Metro, coming nearly to the man's shoulder. Whoever removed the tree had taken down the individual trunks and left behind the gnarly work where the respective grains converged and twisted.

Having recently spent many evenings hand-splitting a felled and sectioned birch, I knew how much work he was in for. Did he?

That evening an absurdly small pile of paperback-sized chips had accumulated at its base. Over the week, more chunks gradually appeared, arranged in a semi-orderly stack. How had he drawn this job? Was it his yard or had he been hired? Didn't he own a chain saw?

Maybe he just liked to do things the hard way.

Grass, we are told, once tumbled down our backyard hill all the way to the creek, on a slope ideal for somersaults. But by the time we bought the house a decade ago, the lawn had retreated by half. The hundred-year oaks now had an understory thicket. Great for privacy, but we wanted to see more of the creek.

We did not know then about buckthorn, an invasive, noxious weed tree once imported as hedging.

There should a special place in the Inferno for those who let their lands go over to buckthorn, because it creates a Brush Hell for the living. Buckthorn propagates from runners, quickly sending up tough and springy shoots. Ax blows to a two-inch sapling that would behead Charles Barkley in one swing will keep bouncing back at you until you are rubber-armed. So you take the Swede saw to cut down the trees close to the ground, knowing those stumps will sprout again with five or ten new shoots.

Once buckthorn gets established, it seems only a bulldozer or dispensation from the EPA will fully eradicate it. Attack it solo, and people will probe gently into your methods in case you don't understand the futility of your mission. Let them know you're fighting it by hand, without chemicals, and they will express pity or horror. Like an ultramarathoner, you choose to take their apalled look as a compliment.

Because it is so nasty, buckthorn is very satisfying to kill, so you will stagger from slitting one tree to the next, until, blinded by sweat, back aching, arms and legs throbbing with lactic acid and heartbeat fully audible, you begin hauling the trees through the underbrush up to the curb, where neighbors have begun to erect their own Viking funeral pyres for the annual spring brush pick up. Now is the time for puncturing forearms and ripping flesh on the two-inch-long spikes that project at irregular intervals along the trunks. Next, you cut, saw, snap and otherwise rearrange the trees into the acceptable 6-foot lengths. Once your heart rate recovers, you make another sortie down the hill.

Repeat until darkness falls. Or you do.

Then, in a trance and bleeding from your wounds, you pray to St. Sebastian for the trucks to come on Monday instead of Friday, so you don't have to haul any more brush to the street. Because otherwise you would keep going. Spring is a glorious time in Minnesota, but guilt exerts an even stronger call.

Though it's work, blogging is the antithesis of hard labor. The computer makes short shrift of publishing and thus devalues to weight of each word. Once, revising meant retyping a page. Mark Twain and Ben Franklin set type, fed sheets, and cranked the heavy armature of the press. Scribes made perfect letters and fanned the ink dry. Carvers faced blocks of marble with no delete key.

Facing the bucktorn and cottonwood stump, I don't question the necessity of machines. Not every task needs to be embraced as a moral and physical challenge. Pain isn't torture if it's optional. But lately, I am taking more time to get places. Doing stuff the hard way. Accepting fewer impossibilities.

After five springs, there is a near-perfect clearing under the oaks. And if it weren't for the stack of odd little slabs, you would never suspect a mighty cottonwood had stood along the road.


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