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by John Rolfe Gardiner


You’re as likely to be hit twice by lightning on a Monday as see a wood-chipper pull a man into its maw. Rare, as well, is the member of an arborist crew who hasn’t witnessed the horror from the safety of his imagination. Such was I that season, a clinically depressed college boy on medical leave from my nervous scholar’s struggle. I took a job with the Walters Tree Service in Winchester, Virginia, hoping outdoor work would be the answer where titrations of the calming pharmacopeia had failed, as if manual labor wasn’t host to its own spectrum of anxiety.   My parents, unaware of the depth of my depression, hoped I might study a foreign language in the interim, against a permanent divorce from academia. My girl friend, whom I supposed found nothing to admire in a man who’d spend a year cutting trees rather than tasting the culture of a European capital, ghosted me before the term became fashionable.

Mr. Walters, who hired me, asked if I was afraid of heights? At my hesitance he told me not to worry. “You won’t be climbing, just feeding the chipper. Why do you want this job anyway? Let’s see your hands….roll up your sleeves.” Only later, I realized that my greatest fears were of things I’d never reached for, and that my girlfriend’s estrangement had more to do with intimacy I hadn’t dared than any lack of ambition.

I’d been cutting cord wood for my family’s fireplace for years, and passed Mr. Walters’ physical with no trouble. It was the college-boy thing and untamed hair that gave him doubts. I said I’d ‘always been interested in…’ “Stop,” he threw up his hands. “I don’t need a tree-hugger. I’m clearing off trouble. I don’t care if you know sumac from a locust shoot.” I began to explain myself, but he interrupted again. “Where do you live? No drugs? Living at home, are you?  Assume you can drive?”

“This is your new man,” he told the crew boss Vernel, whose jaw fell at the sight of me. “No stranger to hard work,” Walters said, pulling this bogus resume out of the blue. In fact I was a complete stranger to physical labor as daily duty. An ordinary middle-class son of America, my exposure to the liberal arts curriculum had taught me my forebears were canny as any in labor saving devices, starting with slavery, moving on to factory children, then machinery, and a myriad of outdoor machines like Mr. Walters’ second-hand chuck-and-duck wood chipper which lacked safety features.

At the time, his crew was working on private land, taking down dead ash trees. In an open field they needed no preliminary topping. The trunks and larger limbs were being cut for firewood, the smaller fed to the chipper. Right away I was shown how to throw the butt-end of branches with force at the noisy machine’s mouth, then step back and wait for the lower masticating whine as chips showered into the hopper behind. Nothing but the short entry chute between me and the machine’s rolling teeth. If it could chew up a six-inch log, imagine how easily it could digest me.   “Do what he tells you,” Walters said, pointing at Vernel, whose shrug made his disapproval clear.  In the crew’s new pecking order I’d be pecking last, and I was content with that. It was what I’d wanted, just to be ordered here and there with months of mental vacation ahead. But there was no clean-scrub of the student brain. Outdoor work could not free me from classrooms where I still walked in academic nightmares.

You might ask, ‘if dreams are the work of mad authors and absent editors — fantasies arriving uninvited — why reproduce them here?’ Because in this early stage of my time among the arborists, unsettling dreams and daydreams were central to the experience. One of them as tormenting in slumber as it was inane on waking. I was protesting a history exam written in ideograph. Bewildered, I was asked by the professor if I’d been absent the day the class learned Chinese.

As academic anxiety gradually gave way to the dangers of my new occupation, there came a particular night of horror when I saw the fingers of a severed hand balanced atop the gate of our wood-chip hopper, as if one of the crew was trying to climb out. Impossible, because I’d just seen him pulled off his feet, arms and head first, surrendering at the same pace as an ash branch to the machine’s mechanical appetite. It was turning him into a crimson coloration in the top layer of chips. The crew chief Vernel was grinning at me as a dangling foot disappeared. Then I was trying to explain the impossibility of a casket funeral to the man’s mother.

Three of my five crew mates were authentic wage laborers, I supposed as far into the future as their imaginations carried them; their lives seemed as settled as the brands on their beer cans.  What regard should they have for an interloper from a world where thinking was considered work? They never sent me to Home Depot for sky hooks or black-and-white-striped paint, but kept me at a third-person distance while I was no threat to their ranking.

No welcome for me in crew-chief Vernel’s cold, gray eyes set in inward contemplation, promising no hope of brotherhood. He might have been speaking to someone behind him, explaining how far he’d come to sit on his top rung. At his direction I kept ice in the water bucket, put the traffic cones out and at times held a stop sign.

After a month I was still not trusted with a chain saw. I felt no resentment, rather wondered at the contentment of others, at ease with their weekly paychecks and tins of tobacco. There was Ron who dipped RedMan and hummed through the day, giving rhythm without melody to the day’s back-and-forth; Gene who preferred Skoal, and would flummox me with sexual inference or a question for which there was no self respecting response; “A good day’s work and a piece of pussy ‘d probably kill him.” or “Still using your hand?” If I parried, “get a life,” it only begged his question and kept me subject to the crew’s amusement.

Then Jefferson, mute until spoken to, the one who might have accepted me as a deserving workmate if I had only paid full dues of a new man. Vernel was the only one whose soul seemed as calloused as his hands. When we were especially busy an extra man might be hired from the end of the walking mall where leftovers of Winchester’s wasteland of alcohol and opioid addiction waited each morning looking for day labor.

The crew kept me aware of my schooling, both how much and how little it meant in their estimation of me. If I’d lived in classrooms all my life, how unlikely I could learn anything from life itself. How useless to know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction if I was going to fall back on my ass the first time I threw a heavy limb at the chipper. I tried not to let some line of poetry, or a statesman’s quotation betray me, or any showy knowledge that might cause an eye-roll or a spurt of tobacco juice.

I’ve omitted our climber Carl from the list — a man apart, who made a remarkable twenty dollars an hour with the right to hire out on weekends. The climber is the acknowledged hero of a small tree company like Walters’. Working without a bucket-truck’s perch of relative safety, he may climb on spiked boots a hundred feet or more, with his carabiners, and ropes and D rings to hang over the earthbound in his belted saddle. Swinging by lanyard or high-hung safety line, he hops limb to limb, sometimes tree to tree, an arbor jockey, operating his hip-hung chainsaw one handed, appearing fearless on branches that can scarcely support him.

How fragile his small fame. Not long after I arrived Carl broke his back, falling in a giant oak.  Hanging limp on a life-saving branch of the last tree he’d ever climb, we might have thought him unconscious or dead but for an intermittent howl of pain. Gene made a shaky ascent with Vernel calling up instructions, muttering “should have gone up there myself.” He was offering instruction for maneuvers already accomplished when Carl was secured in a rope harness and lowered to the ground where the EMTs were waiting. I was grateful to be one of the earthbound. Not long afterward I was high in the branches of a tree I couldn’t remember climbing, falling backward, before I came crashing down on my mattress.

The crew’s politics reached scarcely beyond their own welfare. To take gloom off the day of the accident, Mr. Walters had treated us all to lunch at Knosos, the Greek franchise in Winchester.  Here I was pushed to the front as the one who would know what spanakopita was. Facing a swarthy man serving behind the counter with a hand wrapped in gauze, I asked what had happened to him.

‘Burned,” he said.


“No, Pakistan.”

Turning to share my amusement with the others I saw not a grin among them, only grim nodding at a mutual sense of betrayal by the country’s misguided angels of immigration. Not one of them thought the government owed them a thing. No more did I. None ready to accept a favor gracefully, unwilling to be beholden.

Carl got severance; his life in Virginia’s green canopy was over. Lost to the crew was his tree craft, source of their pride and proxy dominion over tall trees. There were thousands of crews like ours across a whole continent of dying ash and other problem trees, crews with their own climbing heroes. But to hear Vernel tell it, one might have thought Carl’s leverage from the top of a giant oak could move the planet. I wondered if our little company would survive his loss while the new fear took its place in my library of dreams.

We were all laid off for a week after Carl’s fall while Mr. Walters searched the region for his next climber. A scribbled resume insufficient; Walters wanted to see a new man’s skills for himself.  He found him working high over an estate by the Potomac River. Hired him right out of a tree at a salary known only to him and Mr. Walters. The man showed up the next week in a rusty truck with his gear thrown in the back. Hitching himself up in his straps he looked us over, appraising the crew one by one.

His name was Jasper Embry. His red face was pitted, perhaps from smallpox or severe acne.  Behind hawkish features his steady gaze revealed nothing. His black hair pulled back in a knot left clear view of a growth on his temple, a dark nickel-size disk. With his narrow jockey’s body, shirt buttoned to the neck, and sweat-darkened leather pants he looked all country without apology.

“From below Grinders,” Embry said, “a ways off in the mountains.”

One imagined a few bungalows on a blue highway whose event might be a crossroad, and infrastructure, a speed trap. Walters told us Embry had spent twenty-three years in trees and didn’t need a leaf- identification book or bark-chart to tell one tree from another. As if to say his work had taught him how to do it, and approaching a tree he did not mean to hug it, but to rid the world of another nuisance.

Embry was already studying his first climb, a double-trunk maple, the larger half split by lightning. Its top branches, brittle by nature, were hanging over a greenhouse.

“You have insurance yet?” Vernel asked him.

“He’ll be my ground-man,” I stepped back because Embry was pointing at me.

“He just chucks,” Vernel told him.

“I’ll have him anyway,” Embry said, maybe because I was the fresh-faced one, and moving backward as others came forward for preferment. Vernel pointed at Ron.

‘No, I’ll have him.” Our new climber was still pointing at me. There could be no shrinking out of sight. Vernel looked to Walters for support, but got none. He may have been in charge of ground men, but Mr. Walters wasn’t crossing his new hire. When the boss was gone Vernel pulled the others aside. They were all looking at me.

From that day forward I was Embry’s aide, though still Vernel’s minion. First thing, the new climber taught me the cow-hitch. He had me tie one around the bottom of a nearby mulberry, setting up the control line that would carry branches safely over the greenhouse. There was snickering as I fumbled through my first lesson.

Walters had been wrong about Embry. He leaned against the maple, feeling its scarred bark in a kind of apologetic salute. On that first day, watching his smooth ascent, his easy movement, branch to branch, my interest in the work woke up. Agile, as if sprung by steel sinew, alert as a squirrel, he rose like an anti-gravity machine, his feet gripping the bark like the hooked side of velcro.  Forgetting my fear for the moment, I could imagine myself his pupil.

Somewhere up there, out of sight, a thrush or its winged cousin began to trill and warble, maybe in surprise at human company. Then other birdsong as if the first had attracted competition.  Embry pulled up the chainsaw hanging from his belt, gave the starter cord a single tug. A moment later a limb was swinging from a rope as if a baton was demanding more chirp and trill. I realized it wasn’t birds at all. It was Embry himself producing the chorus. From some magic of breath, tongue and lips, he was making a music of grace-note speed, more like a gift of nature, than anything that could be taught or learned.

The branch-walking that followed had the weightless appearance of a marionette as he tied off limbs, sawed, and released them to be safely lowered over the greenhouse.  Chainsaw, birdsong, chainsaw, and birdsong again. Watching and listening, the men below looked up slack-jawed, ignoring the pile of branches growing beside us. Vernel got out of the truck where he’d been pouting. “Walters ain’t paying him to whistle,” he said, insulted by the music. He said no-one could equal Carl in a tree, and the crew went back to work as Embry flew to the damaged side of the maple.

Within a week I had mastered our new climber’s instruction in several knots — running bowline, alpine butterfly, and prusik hitch, the loop that that holds fast on the middle of a line.  Before long I was helping prepare his ropes as he studied the next ascent. Vernel had been watching me as a road-gang guard might a convict testing the range of his shotgun. He made sure I was busy with the two fingered signal that meant his eyes were on me. When I wasn’t helping Embry I was chucking branches, raking twigs, or on the road holding the stop sign.   After a few weeks Embry told me, “You can call me Jasper, young fella.” A heady promotion.  As our bond grew he hired me to work with him on weekends beyond the crew’s notice. By then he felt free to ask me why I didn’t get off my ass and move out of my parents’ house. Hadn’t finished college yet, I told him.

On an otherwise dismal day, hearing his aviary singing, I could call up to him some line of pastoral poetry, without fear of laughter. “What’s it like at that place” he asked me later, “just thinking all day long?”

Vernel was calling Embry “Feathers.” I hoped for a counter-attack, but none came. The disrespect clear enough but Embry ignored it. When Walters called me into his office I knew something was off, and thought he might be getting rid of me. He asked what was going on. He said Vernel had told him I wasn’t much account, and what did I have to say for myself. “Did you get off on the wrong foot?”

“There isn’t any right foot with him,” I told him, and was surprised when he said, “Maybe there isn’t. If you stay another few months I’ll raise you to eight dollars. Just do what he tells you for now.” He wanted to know if the state inspector had been around, and if Vernel was doing side work on the company clock. He was showing me out the door, ignoring my protest at being used as a spy.

I told Walters I’d work another few months if he wanted me, though I’d be ignoring the deadline for readmission to college, passing on scholarship money, and triggering my parents’ eviction notice. The truth is I was more afraid of going back to college — maybe total immolation in that mental furnace — than facing whatever Vernel might have in store. By then I was in full sway of my ‘country uncle’ Jasper Embry and his daily example. I wanted more than his tutoring and tolerance; I wanted his admiration. Not possible while I was content to handle ground ropes, sharpen his chains and keep his saws topped up with gas and chain-oil. Reading my mind, he said, “I could run that fear out of you.”


I took two rooms over an antique store in Winchester’s walking mall. A few weeks went by before I dared ask Jasper up to my new quarters for a beer, perhaps a step too far, reaching for premature brotherhood. I was more apprehensive than gratified when he said, “OK, young fella,” and showed up a few nights later.

“It’s all right,” he said, but looking over the bed and chair in the otherwise bare rooms I knew he meant we should walk out to a bar for our beer. Maybe he thought he’d insulted me because in the bar he began to share a story beyond my asking.

I’d been wrong about the little community he’d come from. Not three houses on a blue highway; far more remote. A few cabins deep in the West Virginia mountains, farther than you could see across the rolling landscape from the Interstate. On a logging road beyond state maintenance. Each home, a fortress with a hound on a chain. “Too low in the hollow for rabbit ears to catch the television,” they made their own entertainment, he said. Burlap dolls, and a rocking horse from a pallet. They lived what people in the city called the folk-life. He knew this because his father had been taken to Washington one summer where a fuss was made over his carving and he showed how he fashioned his walking sticks. They had one there in a museum in a glass case.

Think of four families, bound by the necessities of survival, but separated by pride of tribe, and two children in forbidden alliance. Thurjean at fifteen in Jasper’s arms defying her father who had warned Jasper’s: “Keep your bastard away from my daughter.”

One night she put fireflies in a glass tube and rolled it up in her straw-blond hair. Jasper thought he was “in heaven dancing with an angel.” When they were old enough to run over the mountain without getting caught he carried her off to Winchester where he started in tree work. Thurjean studied house-keeping on-the-job, and the science of not having babies. As Jasper’s work grew into a career she managed the money and did the book-keeping.

“Right away, so happy.” A real life folk-tale, I thought. The boy with the scarred face and knot on his head whistling up a princess.

“In the stories,” Jasper asked me, “don’t the trials come first, then the princess?”


As the sun fell Jasper stared in disgust at a wasted day. We were meant to take out two dead oak trees together but that Saturday morning was frozen. “If your fingers go numb, you won’t know if you cut one off or just mashed it.” We sat in his truck through the middle of the day while it poured icy rain. He knew a man who had worse luck than Carl; “slid out of a sycamore in a rain like this and broke his neck.” The wind blew a gale through the afternoon til it was “too late to make a showing.” We drove back to the Winchester bar where he’d begun telling his story. Now he wanted mine.

“Where’d it go wrong for you, young fella?”

I explained how a doctor had said my brain got too busy to live with itself.

That can happen to anyone, he said. He knew of a man whose “head got so stuck on one of those twisty blocks they had to send him to the fifth floor,” the locked ward of the Winchester hospital.

“That boy wasn’t right,” he said, “but look at you.”

What did he mean?

“Running backward. Spooked by the books. Now you’re too scared to climb a tree. Do you want to top out like Vernel? Be ground boss of tree beetles all your life?” Looking up at him every day was just teasing my fear, he said.

The next weekend he said we had a job in West Virginia. On the way he could see I didn’t believe him. I was nervous.

“Guess you didn’t know I worked way back on a crew with Vernel.”

How would I know if he’d never told me?

“A man got struck with a falling branch, and Vernel threw the blame on me. We was both fired. It’s no secret. He’s told Walters his side of it.”

We reached a farm road and Jasper drove across to the fence line, stopping under a tall poplar.

“You’ve been watching how for months,” he said.

If I wasn’t frightened before, by the time he’d put me in his spurs and saddle I was shaking like another poplar leaf. Hardly in control of arms and legs as he talked me up to the first low perch.  Unrelenting, he told me, hand by hand, how to put slack in the safety lanyard. “Now pick up your feet.” I was hanging by the climbing rope. The shaking stopped. When I put a foot down again I was standing light as an astronaut on the moon, then stepping softly out the branch and back again.

On the ground again, I was giddy.

That was a start, he said.

Jasper took me out to the same tree several times in the next weeks, each time coaxing me higher until I’d reached the canopy with a chain saw hanging from my hip, working in the highest branches. No more involuntary shakes.

With my progress I presumed a full brotherhood, and without invitation I drove out to find Jasper’s house where Winchester bumps up against the countryside. The fancier homes to either side of his little place were built on higher ground. The small home looked like a squatter that had defied the bulldozers as ‘colonials’ gathered around to shame it. His gravel drive went down a short incline to an entrance on a gable end. Paint was peeling, glazing all crackle, and the screen door hanging crooked in its jamb.

No greeting but “What are you doing here?”

It took him a while to come to the door, but through the screen I could see a floor plan he might have brought with him from the mountains — kitchen, dining and bedroom all one. Bed covers thrown aside, a scatter of dishes and dirty laundry, and no sign of a princess. Leading me back to my car, he had nothing to say.

Back with the crew the next week I tried to apologize to him. He waved it off with the back of his hand. “She run off two months ago,” he said.


“No, Thurjean was way back.” He’d had two women since then. This last one had cleared out over night, another woman, he explained, who had lost patience with her fate, and then with a neighbor’s assistance, discovered she’d been a “victim of mental abuse.” Before she left she emptied his bank account. Took the dog too. She hadn’t got far, he guessed, because the dog had found its way home again.


Jefferson was first to be fired. The others looked at me balefully. Wasn’t I to blame for being there at all. There was a tacit competition after that, all vying to be judged indispensable, but unsure who they were trying to impress, Jasper or Vernel, who thought he was about to be fired himself. That’s when he started referring to Jasper as “that gravel-faced bastard” instead of “Feathers.” Jasper was still turning his back on the abuse. I supposed his silence was a gathering storm. I was waiting for thunder.

Walters called me up to say I’d be going back to college soon. If so, he knew more than I did, or maybe it was his way of letting me go. “You may be clever,” he said, “but you’re ignorant.  Working for him you could both be sued. Tell him I want to talk to him.”

“Why don’t you tell him yourself,” I said, waiting to be fired. There was an audible breath and a sighing exhale before he said, “His phone’s been cut off.”

That was a Sunday evening. The crew worked through the next week, ears cocked for the sound of Walters’ diesel, lest one of them be caught idling. They were waiting for another shoe to fall. Then another week and they were back to normal, taking turns napping in the truck, thinking trouble must have blown past. But Friday morning I was walking by Vernel with an armful of sumac shoots when he pushed himself into my load. I tripped and fell to the ground. Jasper from his high perch came flying down his climbing line to see why all the men were standing over me.  Vernel was giving me a hand up as if nothing had happened.

At quitting time Vernel climbed out of the truck where he’d been dozing. He came over to join the others, showing late-in-the-day solidarity with men who took his orders. We were standing there watching him toss a last locust branch at the chipper. He was still pointing at the roaring machine when his sweater snagged on a thorn and began to unspool in dancing circles from his wrist. As the red line travelled out, the sleeve was disappearing up to his elbow and beyond, the flying line circling past his bicep in frightening surrender, unraveling backward through the order of its knitting. With the denuding of his arm, and all the yelling lost in the chipper’s clamor, eternity collapsed into the moment the line snapped free of his shoulder.

With the motor silenced, Vernel stood there still pointing at the defeated machine. Then turned to look at me, posing like a death-defying magician, satisfied his trick had worked to perfection.  Jasper was pulling me away, telling me, “That man is dangerous. You can’t work here anymore.”  The others were standing beside Vernel, watching my retreat.” I told Jasper I’d already been fired.  I’d be coming back Monday for my last paycheck. That I held no grudge against any of them.  They had every right to resent me and my disruption, knowing I’d be going back to that place where states of concentration were considered work.


Monday had broken gray over the farm where the crew waited to say a false farewell to the college boy. Jasper never came down from his high seat in the oak whose dead limbs threatened the house below. He had his own way of saying goodbye. Secure above an ill-natured world, above men whose kindest regard was an admiring envy, above his home over the horizon that could not hold a woman, over the lines of a pitiless phone company, above the boy who proved not worth the trouble he’d spent on his climbing education; still offering grace notes against earthbound disappointment; superior in aerial skill and song. Not one bird and then another, but a medley of trill and warble I hadn’t heard before, as if springing unrehearsed from some ancestral habit of questing or contentment, the source maybe a secret from himself. Flying through leaves to his next perch.

Not caring what others thought of me, I raised my voice to Jasper, “So little cause for caroling of such ecstatic sound, written on the world below, both near and far around.” Getting it all wrong, but not what most needed saying: “some hope whereof he knew, and I was unaware.” END

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