From “Meetings” — Life, The Woods, & The Chainsaw

From “Meetings” — Life, The Woods, & The Chainsaw

Autumn 1966: While at Friends World College, for one studytravel journey we piled into the school’s Volkswagen buses and headed for Vermont, to the farm of a friend of the Director named Bert. Bert had left the city to become an early back-to-the-lander; but he was no laid back hippie. His farm was well-organized and productive.


It was autumn, and we arrived well after dark. In the morning, I went outside, looked around, and reeled back in astonishment. I had never seen New England fall foliage before: the hillsides and even trees nearby all seemed alight with a kind of psychedelic aura that was almost audible, loud purple, operatic orange, roaring red and buzzing neon yellow, so overwhelming it seemed like it must surely be illegal.

If I were rich, I would fly up to Montreal in late September each year, and follow this amazing natural light show south for weeks. 

There was more to see on Bert’s farm than the fiery riot of the maples. He took us on a tour past his barn, down a path through a copse of these trees, beneath which the ground was crowded with seedlings and saplings, still green and fluttering in the morning breeze. Farther on, the path led us to his large woodlot, in which tall pines stood in rows.

Woodlot-4We stopped, and Bert invited us to contemplate the two scenes we now confronted. On one side were the native trees, especially the maples, huddling together at random. But really, Bert explained, if we could see the world from their perspective, the air of vivid autumn exuberance was an illusion; in fact, they were caught in a desperate struggle: each tree was stretching for the sky, competing with all the rest to take in enough sunlight to make its food. 

This was not a friendly contest, but life or death. And below, the riot of green around our feet was even more deceptive: practically all the slim saplings and seedlings we could see were almost certainly doomed. Crowded out by others, with the bigger trunks and branches blocking access to direct sun, only one in hundreds or a thousand would survive to become a tree. 

I looked around the scene again; where had my naïve townie’s green eden suddenly gone?

“Now turn around,” Bert said. We did. Here were the pines, with circular carpets of fallen brown needles beneath each, in carefully-aligned rows, with only a half-light showing through the thick, close branches, which made shifting geometric patterns as we moved. 

chainsaw-pineBert explained that these were carefully tended by him and his help, to give them the nutrition they needed, and keep pests at bay. The rows were precisely spaced to ensure all had the needed sunlight, but in the minimum of space, so the maximum number of trees could gather there, until it was time for harvest.

Oh, yeah – harvest. The rows seemed to grow even more silent and dim as Bert explained that all these trees would, in their prime, be cut down for lumber, or Christmas trees (I forget which), and replaced with a new crop.

Maple saplings: so lovely, but mostly doomed.

I stood there, looking first in one direction, and then the other. And maybe I lingered for a few minutes after the others walked on. As I hesitated, the tableau became heavily freighted with symbolism:

On one side was life untethered: green, rich, colorful, but uncertain, ruthlessly competitive, likely short. On the other was security, a guarantee of enough space, food and light – but at the moment of peak vitality, came the hungry buzz of the chainsaw. One was costly, risky freedom; the other was security by being made a commodity; a crop.

Was it like this for people too? And if so, which side was I on now, and which side did I want to be on? Was there some in-between place, like this path? And did I really have a choice? 

I could imagine a wizened Quaker elder smiling grimly at me, and shrugging: “Thee knows which side thee’d like to be on,” he might say. “And thee knows which side thee’s being groomed for.

“But don’t ask me what to do. I’m middle-aged and corrupt.”


This is an excerpt from Meetings: A Religious Autobiography. It is available here, and on Amazon.

“If you love history, if you love biography, if you are interested in American culture and the complexities of navigating life in this crazy diaspora – this book is for you. Chuck is a hero of mine, and I feel enormously lucky to call him F/friend.”

— Jeanmarie Bishop, author of “The Joy,” a play about Mary Dyer

More about “Meetings” here.

A previous excerpt is here.

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