The Felling

The houses woke to the sound of axes. Shirt-sleeved men swinging silvery axes were chopping a wedge out of the bottom of a huge tree. By the time we had dressed and rushed out, there was a wound nearly a foot deep on one side of the trunk and a man with spiked boots was walking up the tree leaning backwards against a belt. Well above the first branch he fastened a wire cable round the tree and slid down. Children crowded near but the men waved us back to a safe distance, where we stood silent and astonished.

The end of the wire was taken far away from the tree to a large metal machine which had a lever like a railway signal-box points lever. This machine was anchored to the base of another tree and the cable levered taut so that when the tree fell, it would fall in a safe direction, as the men required. Now two men took a long, double-handed saw with enormous teeth and sawed from the other side of the trunk towards the wedge. The sharp smell of fresh-cut oak, a smell that would evoke oak all our lives, filled the air. That sharp tang of pyrogallic acid is like no other smell on earth, clearing the brain like wine. Other woods have their own smells but oak has a special sharpness.

As the saw bit deeper and deeper into the trunk, the hawser was drawn tighter and, at last, there was a slight movement. The men released the saw and ran to drag on the steel lever. Slowly the tree moved towards them and a space opened up in the sky as the huge canopy of branches fell to the ground, dragging in a gush of light. Great branches cracked like sticks under the impact. Twigs littered the ground and, finally detached, broken from its branch but still closely woven and complete, was a bird's deserted nest which I kept for years.

By the time we came back from school, almost a dozen fine trees had been felled. The lumberjacks had sawn or chopped off the side branches so that the trunks were stripped ready for the carters to take them to the timber yard. Larger branches were stacked, ready to be carried away, but the smaller pieces still littered the ground. Instead of a dense wood there was an open prairie with flat-topped tree trunks spaced at intervals and light reached the ground as it had not done for a thousand years.


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