Whacking Away The Pain

At trying times like these, some people turn to vodka, drugs or end-of-the-world sex for solace. I cut brush. I’m certainly not immune to the charms of controlled substances. It’s just that nothing seems to involve me quite as fully as whacking a trail through the woods.

I’m well aware this is a middle-aged admission to make. I remember visiting a friend’s country home as a teenager and coming upon his father cutting a trail through their woods. It occurred to me back then that this had to be the most boring project on Earth. I deduced that it was what men did for kicks when life’s well had run dry, when there was nothing left to live for and look forward to.

And it depressed me. Back on that Saturday morning, my friend’s dad asked us if we wanted to help, and we turned him down flat. He may as well have been the Grim Reaper.

The crazy thing is, I still feel the same way. Heading off into the woods with a pair of clippers and a chainsaw can’t hold a candle to snorkeling or sky diving (not that I’ve ever tried it) or end-of-the-world sex. And frankly, while cutting brush I’m not smelling the roses-or rather, the spruces-and thinking lovely, poetic thoughts. I’m not communing with nature; I’m destroying it. And making lots of noise and burning oil, to boot.

Furthermore, the monotony of the process seems to trigger self-loathing. As I’m chopping away or trying to pull saplings out by their roots and killing my back, I’m thinking things like “Why can’t I seem to finish the novel I’ve been working on for years?” and about all the people who are getting ahead of me.

George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan rank among our nation’s most famous weed whackers. And while I don’t presume to know what goes through George’s mind while he’s down in Crawford, Tex., opening the view from his patio, I suspect it’s not affairs of state. (I feel for the poor guy being holed up at Camp David these days-cutting brush on public land undoubtedly doesn’t provide the same rush as doing so on your own property.) There’s something about the enterprise that doesn’t lend itself to deep thinking, to finding solutions to intractable problems like the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s anti-intellectual. It’s manual labor for people who work in offices.

So why do men spend their weekends doing it? (And I suspect it’s a peculiarly male thing to do. Women garden, of course, and they’ve been known to rake leaves, but I’m not aware of any woman who derives satisfaction from toppling large trees and blazing boulevards through the woods, who feels righteous hacking away at creation with a chainsaw.)

I posed the question to my friends and neighbors Lucien and Steven, a couple of architects, when they came over for tea on Saturday afternoon. In fact, they were coming over to admire my new trail.

Showing off your handiwork to family and friends and receiving praise for it is certainly part of the reason one risks having a twig snap back unexpectedly and scratch your cornea or having a chainsaw recoil, requiring that you be evacuated by helicopter to the nearest hospital for microscopic surgery to reattach your limbs.

My wife makes fun of me for taking a cell phone into the woods along with my sweat rag and a bottle of water to stave off dehydration. (I build up a manly sweat, by the way.) But I think it’s only prudent. I’m not doing it to call friends to chat when I get bored; I’m doing it in case the volunteer ambulance squad needs to find me because I’ve had a heart attack or because, in my frenzy to fashion a cross-country ski trail before winter comes, I’ve cut off my foot.

Steven’s theory was that I spend my weekends accosting nature because I’m a city boy. “I grew up in the country,” he stated with barely disguised condescension. “I had enough as a child. I went camping. I went outside.”

Lucien begged to differ. He also grew up in the country, but he finds that nature continues to provide some novelty. “We had five acres,” he recalled.

“Did you have any brush to be cleared?” Steven inquired skeptically.

“Most of our garden was undergrowth,” explained Lucien, who grew up in England.

“It’s personality,” Steven shrugged. “I’m Zsa Zsa Gabor. He’s Eddie Albert.”

My friend James, another neighbor and an art historian, believes that cutting brush and chopping wood is our feeble attempt to show progress in something, anything, because our careers provide maddeningly little proof of tangible accomplishment.

He compares chopping down trees-his specialty-to the process of making Renaissance frescoes, where an artist could measure his progress across a basilica ceiling day by day.

“It’s a visual quantification of your labor,” he contended, referring to both the Sistine Chapel and his trail through the woods. “When one tree goes down, you go back and assess the results. A moment ago, that was there obscuring the view, and now it’s not there. It’s something that’s instant in its gratification.”

James can be heard through the woods most weekend mornings, as well as afternoons, felling trees. While I’m outgunned by any saplings more than a few inches in diameter, he’s currently in the process of clear-cutting his whole forest to expose a view to the Catskills, and he’s had a couple of near-death experiences doing so.

In one case, he guessed wrong on which way a towering oak was going to fall and was saved only when another tree broke its fall. Sometimes he gets his chainsaw wedged so deep in an adversary’s trunk, he can’t extricate it.

In fact, he recently advised me that one should always travel with a second chain and blade in case the first blade gets embedded so deep in a tree that one needs to detach it from the motor and attach a new one to liberate the original. The last I heard, James was considering hiring professionals to help him do the work.

My wife has a less heroic theory to explain my hectic weekend land-management routine. She thinks it’s because I lack inner resources; I’m never content just spacing out the way she is. In fact, she recently suggested that if I was looking for something to do, I should build a stone fence.

I don’t know if she was subtly mocking me, but I got the impression she didn’t mean with a backhoe. She expects me to schlep the boulders one by one. It could take years. But I’m not even considering the project. I draw the line at rocks.

Whacking Away The Pain