I walked out to get the paper early one recent morning and found a tree service crew gathering across the street. They had four trees to remove and weren’t wasting any time.
My neighbor walked over to explain that one large oak was leaning dangerously toward his house, another was diseased, and two others had grown large enough to impinge on his roof. It was time, he had decided, to clear them out.
The crew tackled one tree at a time, dropping it into the street but then clearing a path with impressive speed. The honcho with the chainsaw would either climb the tree or throw a lead line to fasten a strong rope up high, then have someone tie that to a Bobcat loader that pulled it tight.
An expert tree feller can drop a tree within a foot of a desired location, and this one knew his stuff.
A tree would hardly be on the ground before other guys were cutting limbs from the trunk and feeding huge branches into a chipper that rapidly turned everything but the trunk into mulch, feeding it into a dump truck.
The trunk was cut to length and loaded on a trailer to be sold for lumber, and a mechanical stump grinder with a huge blade was brought in to reduce the stumps and major roots to fine mulch.
In less than four hours, they had the job done and were moving out.
Back in March, the neighbor behind me decided to take out two oaks and a pine from his back yard, but the process was more complicated. His small yard is surrounded by a wooden fence, and the trees were too large to fall without landing on the fence or on a neighbor’s property.
His crew was smaller and had to work more slowly. I watched from a second-floor window as the lead man strapped on cleats and a rope harness, then scampered up the tree.
The guy was a genius, fastening ropes to large branches, then throwing the line over higher branches or even limbs on adjacent trees to work as a pulley so he could cut a large branch while someone below lowered it safely to the ground.
In essence, he removed the tree from the top down, waiting until the remaining trunk was short enough to fell in the traditional way.
I’m anxious to see if there’s much of a difference when the leaves begin to fall. Our lot has zero oak trees, but the yard is often deep in leaves that have blown from the neighbor’s trees. Maybe there will be fewer this year?
But, most of our leaves come from a third neighbor, who has two giant oaks and a large maple leaning over the fence beside our back yard. If they ever fall, the back of our house could be toast.
Trees are a reminder that balance is important. Sometimes trees need to be cut because they’re diseased, endanger other property, or no longer fit in older neighborhoods where trees planted for landscaping outgrow their space.
We take down other trees because we need wood for constructing new homes and barns, for making paper, or other uses. In pioneer areas, trees are cleared to make room for gardens or pastures.
We have to be careful stewards of the trees, of course. Clear-cutting can wreak havoc with the environment, especially the slash-and-burn techniques that are devastating the rainforests in Brazil and elsewhere.
Trees capture a significant amount of carbon from the atmosphere, so we want to keep as many around as we can.
Fortunately, trees are a renewable resource, and those who take them have a responsibility to replace them by replanting appropriately and following good forestry practices.
But that’s not what I was thinking about while I watched the big oaks falling across the street last week.
I was wondering what metaphorical trees might need to be removed or pruned back in my life.
It’s easy for unhealthy attitudes or habits to grow as quickly and as gnarly as a sweetgum too big for its bark.
I think of the racism ingrained in me as a child – I’ve struggled for years to root it out, but it’s stubborn. It takes constant effort to cut it back and keep it from bearing ugly fruit.
I think of that self-oriented, materialistic tree that could easily take over if I let it. It also needs to be kept in check – sometimes by writing checks to support my church and other charitable endeavors that can make life better for others, at other times by choosing to live more simply and in touch with the land.
Other trees need cultivating: trees representing compassion, generosity, encouragement, and advocacy for those who suffer oppression.
There is a forest in each of us, if you’ll grant the metaphor – and a forest in each of our churches and towns and institutions.
Few of us grew up wanting to be forest rangers, but perhaps we should give it some thought.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.