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The Axe and the Ash

BY Winn Collier Journal
BY Alex Via

One of my favorite things about our old house is the many trees surrounding us: the Japanese Maples, the Persimmons, the Tulip Poplars, the towering Pines. In our front yard, we have two old Ashes which, for nearly a century, have stood sentinel, watching over this place and each family who’ve called it home. We’d only been here a few months before we realized one of these ancient beauties would have to come down. 

This beast of a tree, maybe 40 feet tall, displayed vigor and health up its hardy branches. However, a decade or so ago, the roots received a mortal wound; and over the years, rot and the carpenter ants have done their destructive work. I mourned as I watched the crew bring that great tree to her knees. My friend Tom, a master carpenter, came by and selected a large swath of the mammoth trunk. He’s going to hew a bench for us from the green grain, crafting a resting spot where folks can sit their weary bones and hopefully remember that a majestic tree once stood firm here.  

In early December, on a crisp Saturday morning, we pulled on our flannel and our leather boots and readied ourselves for the full day’s work. Alongside a few neighbors and friends who either needed winter fuel for their stoves or who simply wanted an excuse to wield an axe, Wyatt and Seth (our two sons) and I gathered in the front yard next to our fallen tree. For the next five or six hours, we heaved axes and set wedges and gunned a hydraulic splitter. We drank hard cider (IBC for the boys) and feasted on hot, gooey cinnamon rolls. It was grand. There’s something about having work to do, work you are responsible for, work with clear parameters and objectives: cut the logs, split the stumps, stack the firewood. This was a mother bear of a tree, so the work’s not yet complete – but I see clearly what needs to be done and I know how, if the weather and my back holds, I’m supposed to do it. 

The most beautiful part of that day was the two moments when I saw each of my sons, for their very first time, swing that axe overhead and bring it down with real fury. They were determined to make splinters of that log in front of them. I was so eager for them to have this experience because I wanted them to feel the icy air bite through their chest while sweat dropped from their brow. I wanted them to feel what it is like to heft a blade that can do real damage. I wanted them to wake the next morning sore and content. I wanted them to see other men, vigorous men, at work, laughing yet serious with the labor. I wanted my sons to feel that thrill when another man notices your work, the way both my sons heard Mike or Craig or Ben call out to them: Now there you go, that’s how you swing an axe. I wanted my boys to hear the cheers when their first log split in two, to know the joy of that fantastic crack, to know the joy of being noticed by other good men.

One tree yielded its strength that day, but two other young trees began to step into theirs. 

©Winn Collier, 2016


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