Michael and Sara supervised their neighbor once from their living room window as he cut down a hundred-foot tree alone. Both the maples and the neighbors in that part of Vermont come in one size. Double-XL for the trees. Extra-small talk for the neighbors.
“That suits us,” Sara might say to Michael. “We academics prefer reading over repartee anyways.”
Vermonters have strictly adhered to anti-social guidelines since well before the pandemic began. In this respect, Michael and Sara felt right at home. But even recluses face neighbors at the property line, where Vermonters trade forecasts about ticks, mud season, and tree felling.
Once, Sara accidentally smashed the mailboxes on the other side of the street where they sit side-by-side on a platform, magpies on a perch. She was driving the moving truck. When she backed out of the driveway, the magpies got a beak full of bumper. Before Sara could get out, the neighbor and his tool box beat her to the scene. He hammered the platform, never uttering a word.
Sara loitered between the driveway and the road. She wanted to say, “Thank you” and “I’m sorry about that mailbox,” but his quiet fury made her measure twice and cut once.
They once saw him escalate one of his shoveling marathons from his driveway out into the open road. Apparently, that fleet of passing salt trucks going by with a rumble and a flurry of pebbles did not give the road a proper treatment.
Who can say for sure what turned their attention to grisly descriptions of tree-related accidents in a nineteenth-century Vermont newspaper?
“In our defense,” Michael may have said to Sara, “there were a lot of them.”
They became collectors of local accidents for a piece they were making on precarity and place, done in a textual collage style. They took turns reading lines out loud to each other. In historical newspapers from New England, terrible events got delivered in the same way, beginning with the same phrase—We hear.
We hear from the Weekly Mercury on March 29, 1734 of a Providence man who took it upon himself to fell an “old dry Tree.” The limb that fell spared his life. It broke his arm and “put his Collar Bone and Ancle out of joint.”
Sometimes, upon hearing their neighbor’s chipping, axing, and shoveling, they would improvise news headlines about him, as in: “We hear from White River Junction that a man with nothing better to do today entered his 9th consecutive hour of ice picking.”
In January of that year, they were coming home at sunset. They had been researching a cider monger who lived on their road two hundred years earlier. They felt the evening to be set in the time of Philemon Hazen as the cold wind stirred the branches of the northern pines. Even intrepid cider mongers would have reconsidered travel this evening. Yet, here was their neighbor, up a tree in his front yard, hoisting a chainsaw.
We hear from the American Weekly Mercury on April 6th, 1732 that one John Brigs of Burlington County was felling a tree, when “a Limb thereof fell on him and Crush’d him to Death.”
When they did not have the research, they had the wintered loveliness of the place. They had been gathering in front of a single window in their house every Sunday—in lieu of the lost rituals of their lives. They sat there, just the two of them, to record their thoughts and feelings. One would draw, the other would write. From the window, they made a landscape of their lives—richly wooded greens brushing the sky blue.
For the first several weeks, they enjoyed an uninterrupted view of their natural neighbors, until their human one appeared in the window with tools. He kept clogging up the view they had of the New Hampshire mountains just across the Connecticut River—people over there pay a view tax for the sight of the crest up close. Instead of purple mountains majesty, all they could see was the bloody-red sight of the neighbor with a chainsaw roaring at his side or burning a wicker man of unlucky overgrowth with a yellow hardhat on his head.
The neighbor started showing up in Michael and Sara’s window every Sunday like clockwork. The antics were always the same, dangerous handiwork with edged steel and combustibles at volume. They would hang fire at the window scene. The pen and the pastel stick grinding their respective papers, they would stop in their seats. The neighbor must have noticed them at their shrine. He put himself in the middle of their Sabbath view. He measured and paced all around maple trunks until the time came when he would have to include them in the calculations. The overhanging effects of his invisible cuts and hypothetical prunings touched their backyard.
We hear about the deaths of boys in a year-by-year account of all the sudden fatalities occurring on Sundays in particular, in the 1760s, which may have struck devout readers of the time as expressions of divine intervention: in 1765, the boy who drowned in a mill-dam; or, in 1766, the one who drowned in a creek; or, in 1767, “a third, gathering chestnuts, fell from the tree, and was killed.”
One Saturday in March, Michael and Sara heard their dog, Vegas, responding to three firm raps from the front door. A day early for his appointment with divinity, their neighbor looked different up close. Unshaven and tall, he wore rubber boots and a baseball cap, once red, now the color of stomach medicine.
He greeted Sara from a hygienic distance. Sara reconsidered having answered the door. She wanted to apologize for the mailbox.
Sara felt like June Cleaver meeting a neighborhood kid at the door. In the kitchen, she whispered to Michael: “He wants to talk to you.”
Michael met the neighbor on the snow.
“How’s it going, Michael?”
Michael started at being addressed by name. “Good. What’s going on with you?”
The neighbor stepped away from the door. “They’re like any plant in a garden.” He said it more to the tree than to Michael.
“Yeah, but plants don’t grow that big.” Michael had to cover his eyes to see the top of the tree the neighbor wanted him to look at.
“That leader there,” he said, “if I can just get that one, it would alleviate a great deal of the weight on the main trunk.”
Michael wanted to affirm him but not his plan. “Okay…”
“That way, when I cut off the main trunk that leader won’t be a counterweight, you know?”
“Are you going to cut down the whole tree?”
“That’s the plan,” said the neighbor. “Yes, if all goes well.”
Uncomfortable laughter passed in the six feet of pre-pandemic distance between them.
“If only I can get that one leader out of the way,” he kept saying, “then this main one should…I ought to be able to fell it, you know…if all goes well.”
Michael followed the chop of the other man’s hand as it felled a phantom tree. “And you’ll be able to do this safely?”
We hear from the Death Notices of the Pennsylvania Gazette on March 7, 1737 that a young man died while felling a tree. The “But End left the Stump with a Spring and took him in the Body.” The force of the stump flung the man skyward and then crashing to earth, where he cried out “Lord Have Mercy On My Soul” before passing from this life.
Michael spoke while looking up at the tree. “I’ve heard every part of this job is called a widow-maker, the bad leader, the position of the tree, the things that can go wrong. I’ve heard they’re all called widow-makers.”
The neighbor chuckled at this and then looked him seriously in the face to say that whoever told him that spoke the truth. He then joked about them needing to dial 911 should there be any glimpse through the window of him falling from a snapped rope onto his chainsaw. With that, the neighbor sent Michael back inside to report the conversation to Sara.
“He’s going to cut down a huge tree by himself. He told me to call 911 if I see him covered in blood.”
“He did NOT say that,” Sara insisted.
Over Michael’s shoulder, Sara could see the neighbor standing next to the tree again, busy with a length of rope and what looked like an animal trap.
“Are you watching?” Michael asked her. “We’re supposed to watch him fall out of the tree and die now.”
Sara squinted and stood on tip toe to get a better look through the windows of the neighbor’s unlit house. She had not seen the neighbor’s wife and daughters make their usual marches to their cars.
“Nobody’s home,” she called back to the kitchen. As soon as she said it she knew it.
Through the window, Sara could see the neighbor climbing the ladder with a heavy mound of rope. He climbed under the weight of the rope until parallel with the roof of his garage. He stopped to adjust the rope higher onto his shoulder. His boots alone gripped the ladder. He was twice as high as the roof of his house. Grey afternoon sky shone behind him.
“What is he doing?” Michael asked from the kitchen.
Sara replied, “He’s bringing up the rope.”
“He’ll be using the chainsaw next,” said Michael.
We hear from the Boston Gazette on March 25, 1746, a grisly tale from Dorchester County, where, during a heavy snow fall in the previous December, a man stood on a tree limb with an axe in his hand. His foot slipped and both he and his axe fell, the former on top of the latter, causing his chest to be “cut quite open by the whole breadth of the Axe, & his Lungs came out.” This story had an unlikely happy ending, as it is reported that a Surgeon “was applied to” and made a “perfect cure of him.”
At the window, Sara could see that the neighbor had rigged his pulley system by swinging one side of his rope over a hefty branch about thirty feet off the ground. The other side of the rope attached to the animal cage Sara had seen earlier. Balanced on his ladder against the tree, he pulled on the rope with both hands. No other rope or cable attached to him. No one else stood below. None of the usual parked cars appeared in the neighbor’s driveway.
Rising up from the ground, the animal cage bounced along the trunk upwards. Inside, the chainsaw’s teeth chomped at the grate.
“He’s bringing up the chainsaw.”
“Oh Jesus. Watch for it. He said it would fall on our yard. The big branch. The leader. If all goes well.”
We hear from the Connecticut Mirror of late January, 1832, how a young man, presumably expert at felling trees, struck the stump of a beech tree in such a way that the blade of his axe started back. It cut his ankle and, as reported, “the foot was severed from the leg except hanging by the tendon called the heel-string.” If the horrified historical newspaper reader were to jump to the end of this nugget of rendered suffering, the full recovery noted there would not dull the sting of the description of the missing foot or its discovery—buried beneath the snow and difficult to remove from the ice it had been stuck to, no doubt, by blood.
The neighbor revved the chainsaw to a growl. The branch shifted. It heaved but it didn’t break. At this point, the neighbor was a burl on the trunk of a huge tree. The burl leaned over to shove a branch three times its diameter. He was a trapeze artist about to swing. The branch smashed a staghorn sumac when it hit their yard.
The previous summer, Sara and Michael saw a branch fall from a dead birch tree. It pierced the rocky soil to its hilt. The neighbor’s leader dwarfed that birch and it fell from a staggering elevation.
“He got the big branch,” Sara said.
Michael said from the kitchen, “He has to cut them all before he takes the whole thing down.”
Sara considered what he meant by “the whole thing.” A Vermont soft maple, 100 feet tall. She pictured it landing on the roof of their cape house and shuddered. She tried to imagine it brought safely to the grass by a middle-aged man in a faded baseball cap, but could not.
Later, Sara and Michael were preparing to leave the house to see their teenage daughter perform in her musical. The neighbor kept sawing about forty feet off the ground.
“Should we leave? What if he falls while we’re gone,” Michael asked.
Sara said something callous she didn’t really mean about no longer wishing to play at being her neighbor’s keeper. With that, they left.
We hear from several whispered voices of the 1830s, of neighbors chopping down trees of particular girth, whose circumferences had been measured to the foot and the inch, whose interior concentric rings, when cut, had been properly metaphorized in comparison with certain eyes belonging to each bird of prey they resembled, whose exact number of cords, after the customary quartering, were given in the standard units of the number of “ordinary two-horse sled loads” required to haul it all away (after the chips and limbs of the brush piles were subtracted soberly from the sum), and whose felling story, when triumphal, often includes mention of the number of generations earlier, when a grandfather of the one who held the saw, fed the very seed into the soil from which sprung such a “mammoth tree.”
Michael and Sara came back after nightfall. The neighbor’s garage light was on, streaming a trophy beam into the backyard. There, the tree parked two train cars worth of hard maple in the snow. Sara and Michael walked over together to the edge of their driveway to look at the great body of the tree in the neighbor’s yard.
“Where is he?” Sara whispered. “There are no lights on in the house.”
Michael said. “He did it. Incredible.”
As they were about to head in for the night, they heard the chainsaw behind them.
“Oh Jesus,” Sara said.
Michael shrugged. “At least he’s alive.”
All three, Michael, Sara, and their daughter Heike, worked at the exhumation process. Their Subaru had been idle for months. Something went wrong with the brakes. Plans were made. Busy lives intervened. Winter set in with stiffer appointments sharply kept. It would take all three of them working with shovels to release the car from the hold of the season.
They had scooping shovels for the wet snow, chipping spades for the stubborn ice, and brushing brooms for the rubbery places where winter refused to let go. The sun warmed their efforts as they shoveled as their neighbor, on the other side of the garage, unseen but heard, joined in with his axe.
Their shoveling, chipping, and brushing found harmonics with the ringing and pinging of the axe in the cold air above them. Their noisy bluster roused a neighborhood of crows from ambush positions in birch trees. They heard their worksong as it chimed along with the metal and the thaw, and they tracked the birds along the horizon, while leaning against the handles of their shovels, until the cawing noises faded, and all that was left was their part in the chorus. The sounds of shoveling and digging out.