With a sway and a creak the tree started to fall – straight for the houseā€¦

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, October 17, 1936.

“What’s the good of a sunroom,” asked Jimmie Frise, “if a big tree shades it?”

“Build the sunroom somewhere else,” I explained.

“Cut the tree down, you mean,” said Jim.

“Nonsense,” I cried. “A tree takes longer to grow than you do. It takes a tree a hundred years to mature.”

“This tree,” said Jim, “was just a little bit of a thing when I bought the house. A slim little girl of a tree. Who would ever have suspected it of growing up into a great fat dowdy matron of a tree that would become a nuisance?”

“We’re all human,” I pointed out.

“It has grown higher than the house,” said Jim, “and it not only cuts off all the sun from the sunroom but the grass won’t grow under it any more. Its big fat arms wave and scratch at the roof. One of these days it is going to rip a cornice off. It’s got to go.”

“Jim,” I pleaded, “pause. You can cut off a branch here and there, if it offends. But if you cut that tree down, you will miss it as you would miss a member of your family at the table. A vacant chair.”

“It will be a great relief to see the thing gone,” said Jimmie. “Every time there is a thunderstorm we imagine the lightning hitting the tree and jumping across to the house, killing us all in bed. Fresh air will blow in our windows again. A dampness that has slowly been increasing on that side of our house will vanish, and the good sun will cleanse and brighten us.”

“A nest of robins in its hair,” I reminded him. “Lifts its leafy arms in prayer.”

“Caterpillars drop off it to the window sills,” stated Jim, “and crawl into the house. Black squirrels use it for a ladder to enter our home and chew nests under our eaves.”

“It will cost almost is much,” I declared, “to have the tree cut down as it will to remodel the house and put the sunroom on another corner.”

“I’ll cut it down myself,” said Jim.

“Once I had a tree cut down,” I said, “and it cost $38. Two Norwegian sailors came and scaled the tree like a mast, and started cutting it off from the top, a few feet at a time. I never saw anything so cruel and terrible in my life. This lovely tree, that had patiently thrust itself up, up, year by year, being patiently chopped off, from the top, hour by hour. It took them all afternoon to cut that tree down. And I missed it ever since.”

“Why did you have it cut down?” asked Jim.

“Because its roots were breaking into my drain pipes,” I answered. “Not because it gave me shade.”

“My tree has got to go,” said Jim. “It has outlived its usefulness and beauty. What we need is air.”

“I warn you, Jim,” I assured him. “I warn you. This sacrifice of all life in careless worship of our own needs is some day going to get us humans into a dreadful jam.”

“A tree is a tree,” said Jim.

“That Would Be a Swell Joke”

“It lives,” I declared. “It has life. It probably has feeling. And who knows but it may actually think.”

“Yeah,” agreed Jim. “I often hear it muttering.”

“Jim,” I insisted, “did you ever pause to think of the dreadful slaughter of life that man is responsible for? Think of the creatures mankind has destroyed in the past few millions of years in order to eat. The billions of deer, fowl, cattle, sheep, goats. The incalculable hordes of beasts, birds, fish, oysters. Just so merry little man might write his story on the stones of the earth.”

“Everything eats something,” said Jim. “If we hadn’t eaten them, wolves would have.”

“Ah,” I said, “think of all the things man has destroyed for which he had no earthly use, but just because they were in his way. The wolves, tigers, lions. The elephants. Poor, gentle elephants, doing no harm, yet man slaughtered them for their teeth.”

“We had to play billiards,” explained Jim, “and before we invented composition balls, all we had were ivory balls.”

“The buffalo,” I reminded him. “Once our plains were black with buffalo. So men went forth and slew them, leaving a thousand carcasses a day to rot on the prairie, while the hunters ripped off the hides and sold them for cheap leather in the east at a dollar a hide.”

“How could western farmers operate their wheat fields,” demanded Jim, “if there were a lot of buffalo stampeding all over the place?”

“And the passenger pigeon,” I recalled. “Just to make a holiday, men trapped these lovely wild creatures by the tens of thousands and caged them and sold them to the trap shooters, so that, on a Saturday afternoon, the sportsmen could go to the gun club and each shoot a hundred live birds.”

“If you had lived in Toronto in 1880,” said Jim, “you would have been glad of a little live-bird shooting to break the monotony.”

“To make our fields,” I cried loudly, “we burned and chopped and blasted the forests primeval. To make our fields, we destroyed the buffalo and the deer and all the wild things. For our sweet sake, we have chased and hunted and killed and exterminated not only billions of individual creatures given, like us, the divine blessing of life on this earth, but we have completely wiped out certain whole species.”

“Now that you come to mention it,” agreed Jim, “we have kind of hogged the show.”

“Hog is right,” I mused. “And now, by golly, having nothing else to chase and fight and kill, we are turning on each other. Look at the nations of the earth.”

“That would be a swell joke,” agreed Jim. “Having killed everything else, we kill ourselves.”

“Nature,” I stated, “is essentially humorous. Nature has played a lot of jokes in her time. The various proud races she has built up, and then let them drop in the mud. The species she has allowed to rule the roost, only to have them end up as monstrous and comic skeletons in a museum. I guess the dinosaurs didn’t realize they were comic, in the days they thrashed around the earth, making all living creatures flee in terror. But I get a big snicker out of them whenever I see their great waddling obscene bones in a museum.”

Jimmie Wields the Axe

“Do you think Nature really designed those dinosaurs?” asked Jim. “With clown frills around their necks, and faces like gargoyles, and limp necks seventeen feet long and thick legs three feet long?”

“I believe Nature is a joker,” I assured him. “And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she was busy right now playing a joke on men. I can’t think of any other reasonable explanation of the world as it is to-day. Somebody is having fun with us. It can’t be serious. It must be somebody’s idea of fun.”

“I guess a humorous basis for life would be just as good as a serious one,” said Jim. “If we could only persuade everybody, Hitler and Gen. Blanco and Stalin and everybody, that it was all a joke, then they wouldn’t be so serious about everything and we could all have fun and sleep easy.”

“The first thing you do, then,” I said, “is spare that tree and shift your sunroom to some other part of the house.”

“The tree,” said Jim, “is coming down. Do you know what we call that tree in our house? We call it Mussolini. It is coming down, with a crash. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you give me a hand with it, I’ll plant a new baby tree in its place. Right in the same spot. A new baby tree, of any kind you like to choose.”

“I would as soon,” I said “shoot your dog as cut down your tree. Wait. You’ll find out.”

But the next evening, when I heard an axe ringing unaccustomed in our quiet neighborhood, I knew it was Jim. And, after listening to the sound that has for five thousand years been the most characteristic of all human sounds on this round earth, I felt a curious fascination growing in me and I went down the back lane the three doors that separate our homes, and there was Jim, swinging a bright blade. Already a great white gash showed in the hip of the beautiful tree.

“Which way,” I called, after watching Jim for several minutes, “do you intend it to fall?”

Jim rested from chopping and surveyed the tree.

“Back towards the lane,” said Jim. “I cut a big notch on this side, see? Then I go to the other side and cut a smaller notch a little above the other, so that when the weight begins to tell, the tree will fall towards the larger and lower notch.”

“Correct,” I agreed.

“A lot of good wood in this tree,” said Jim appraisingly. “I’ll saw up the trunk and larger branches. I bet I get three cord of lovely firewood.”

“A wood fire is a fine thing,” I admitted.

“To anybody that wanted a little wood,” said Jim. “I’d be glad to give those large limbs, if they would go to the trouble of sawing or chopping them off, after she’s down.”

“I’d be glad of the branches,” I submitted.

Jim stepped up, spat on his hands, and began to swing the axe again, in great sweeping blows, making big white chips leap out on to the lawn.

There is something graceful about swinging an axe. Graceful and satisfying. It uses all of a man. His arms, shoulders, back. His legs, thighs, calves, feet. A good swing of an axe is about as complete a use of the human body as can be imagined. It may be all this dreadful orgy of killing and chopping and cultivation was the result of early man discovering how nice it is to swing an axe. Maybe even war started from man liking the feel of an axe. Maybe.

“Jim,” I called, “if you need a hand.”

Jim took a few more extra heavy whangs and then let the axe fall, and rested.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I say, if you would like a rest, I could take a few swings.”

“Certainly,” agreed Jim, stretching his shoulders.

I took the axe, and felt the slide of its smooth handle through my hands; felt the heavy bite of its blade into the gleaming wood. It is a sort of rhythm that makes good chop. You don’t heave and thump with an axe. You simply swing it, in a rhythmic and accelerating arc, allowing the weight of the blade to do the work, and concentrating the mind on the accuracy of the blow.

“Don’t widen the cut,” called Jim, who was standing admiring my work. “Keep to the same notch I was making.”

“Listen, boy,” I said, “my great-grandfather owned the hogs that hollowed out Hogg’s Hollow. Tell me about an axe!”

But in a minute, Jim stepped in and I handed it over to him.

“We’re not the right sizes,” he said, “to both work on the same notch. “You’ve widened this all out.”

“Good clean chips, though,” I said.

“I’ll have to even it out,” said he.

And with a few keen, upcurving strokes he joined the lower part of the notch where I was hitting to the larger notch he had made.

“You had better go around and start your higher notch now,” I warned him. For the big notch was more than half way through.

“I do a workmanlike job,” said Jim, pausing to study the notch and then stepping up and giving a series of neat, sharp chops to remove a few rough cuts.

A loud crack.

A creak, a squeak, and I saw the tree starting to sway. A sudden rending splitting sound, and the tree began to fall not towards the lane, but straight for the house.

We leaped aside, and as it fell, the unchopped side caused the trunk to swing a little, so that what it did strike was not the house but the sunroom, jutting out from the back. A side-ways swinging blow. And in a tremendous shower of glass and splintering frames, the sunroom collapsed like an orange crate.

There was a long moment of utters silence, such as always marks the fall of a noble tree, even in the lonely forest, where the wood choppers toil. And then the trouble began. Family, neighbors, that sort of thing.

“The point is,” said Jim, as he and I stood out in the lane while everybody else crowded around the tree and the hanging sunroom, “the point is, we had more or less decided to take your advice in the first place, and shift the sunroom around to the south side.”

“Then why did you chop down the tree?” I demanded.

“We thought we’d do both,” said Jim.

“Nature is humorous,” I suggested. “And often she’s very helpful.”

Editor’s Notes: $38 in 1936 is $730 in 2021.

Who is this Gen. Blanco, on par with Hitler and Stalin? Probably Luis Carrero Blanco, Francisco Franco’s right hand man. As the Spanish Civil War only started a few months earlier, maybe it was not clear who was in charge of the Nationalist side?