The Law of Total Probability
This was a week of horror stories. Hang out with Chainsaw Bill long enough, and you’ll hear ‘em all.
[Warning: I’m about to describe some gruesome injuries, just as they were described to me.]
There was that time a logger missed his mark, walked straight back (instead of at a 45-degree angle) from the the falling tree as it hit another tree and bent under the pressure. The hinge he left in the wood then turned into a torpedo, firing out the back of the cut at 60 feet/second, amputating his leg at the knee before he knew it.
Oof. Did ya wince? Me too. Chainsaw Bill was just getting started.
There was that other time when a co-worker of Chainsaw Bill made his wedge and then cut from the back (instead of doing a plunge cut) on a tree that was far too large. As soon as you cut from the back, the tree starts to fall, and if you can’t cut through the whole trunk fast enough, the pressure causes the tree to “Barber Shop”, splitting down the middle in an ear-shattering instant. The tree basically exploded, hurling countless six-foot long javelins of oak 150 feet into the air, to come down wherever they may. Chainsaw Bill ran behind the biggest tree he could find, curled into a ball, and prayed.
Everyone turned out okay that time, somehow. But not so for a friend of Chainsaw Bill, who also had a tree “Barber Shop” on him while executing a back cut, and who was crushed as he ran away by a three-ton piece of that tree’s trunk when it blew.
Then there’s the time when a logger did everything right, made the perfect cut, walked away, and turned to watch the tree come down just where he wanted. But he stopped under a dead tree that he didn’t identify beforehand, and the impact from the falling tree caused the dead tree above him to snap in half, 40 feet and four tons of American Birch crashing down directly on top of him.
And I haven’t yet mentioned the hundreds of stories involving the saw blade, when that one lapse in focus leads to a nasty gash (or worse) on your foot or thigh. Nor have I mentioned that all chainsaws have a “kickback corner,” the part of the saw blade that’ll KICKBACK INTO YOUR FACE (or, if lucky, your shoulder) should you catch it unsuspectingly on the wood.
Okay, I’m done. Chainsaw Bill wasn’t, but I have to move on to discuss the fact that these stories were told while we were learning to cut down trees with chainsaws.
According to professional loggers, for every 100 mistakes that are made, there are ten injuries, and one death. In some ways, it’s just a matter of time. There are endless ways to get hurt, endless ways to die. As I gripped the chainsaw and pulled the starter cord, it certainly felt like that.
I guess you could say that there’s a strong incentive to focus.
But, in what feels like sheer lunacy, anyone can go to their local Home Depot or Lowe’s and buy a chainsaw. That is, without any sort of training, you can go buy a hand-held machine that rotates a 3-foot long saw blade at 60 mph, and then go cut down the 100 year-old oak in your backyard.
You, humble reader, can go do this right now.
Chainsaw Bill’s horror stories were designed to engender in us the appropriate level of fear and respect for this dangerous thing we were doing. In truth, he was one of the nicest humans I’ve ever met, jolly and jovial, happy that he gets another day to live and work in the woods.
But he carried himself with a seriousness, an intention, that was impossible not to notice. Every movement was focused and thought-out. He’s seen too many hard-working friends and colleagues die, and had too many horrific near-misses of his own, to not bow down before the Law of Total Probability that governs his line of work, and to not spend every moment obsessed with holding off the inevitable for another day.
It was impossible not to admire, to hope to emulate.
Chainsaw Bill considers himself a farmer of the forest. He knows that here on the east coast of North America, we grow trees better than we grow just about anything else. He knows that you can heat your home with oil from Kuwait or fracked gas from Ohio, or you can heat it with the forest ecosystem in which you live. He wants more people to be self-sufficient, to know how to do hard and dangerous things safely, to appreciate and make good use of the abundance that is all around.
And so, when my turn came to cut down a tree, I focused in a way that felt quite rare.
I was terrified, yes, but he’d given us the tools we needed to transform that fear into effective action. We made our cut plan. We picked our target. We identified any potential hazards, any hanging dead limbs or nearby dead trees. We identified the lean of the tree so that we’d know how it would fall. We estimated the necessary width and length of the hinge, that crucial sliver of wood that you leave intact in order to control the fall of the tree. We mapped out an escape route. Everyone backed up.
I pulled the cord, and turned off the chain brake. I leaned my left shoulder into the tree, facing my target, and cut at 70 degrees until eight inches of my saw had disappeared. I cut out the wedge, going horizontal to meet at the bottom of the first cut. I walked around the tree to the side from which I would escape. I made my plunge cut, angling the saw so that my attack corner, not my kickback corner, would touch the wood first. I edged up to the hinge, leaving less than one inch of wood to hold the 10 tons of tree above it. I looked up, looked around, got the go-ahead from Chainsaw Bill, and started moving the chainsaw back through the trunk. When the saw exited the wood, I heard a pop, knew the tree was going, stood up straight, put on the chain brake, and walked away (at a 45 degree angle, of course). Through my thick headphones, I heard a big thump behind me. Through the ground, I felt it.
I turned around, and there was an 80-foot tall Red Oak on the ground, exactly where I aimed it.
I exhaled for what felt like the first time in two minutes. My heartbeat took a good ten more minutes to calm down. We moved on to the turns of other people in the group, to other necessary chainsaw skills like limbing and bucking, and eventually, to chores and the weekend. We said goodbye to Chainsaw Bill and went to go feed the sheep.
But that feeling stuck with me. The feeling of intentionally, methodically, doing something incredibly dangerous.
Terrifying, yes. But also awesome. As long as you focus.
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