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Eric Bergeson

Down on the Farm: Counting the Rings

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'Twas the day after Christmas, but it could have been October. No snow. Mid-forties. A perfect day for cutting firewood.

There stood a big dead ash tree about 100 yards from the house that's been bugging me for a couple of years, so I decided to go after it. It alone could heat the house for at least two weeks!

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To get at the tree, I had to clear away a path through the buckthorn and prickly ash. When I reached the big tree's base, I realized the saw might not be able to take the whole thing and even if it did, I couldn't tell which way the monster would fall.

So I went up six feet and cut off the half of the tree which was clearly leaning. Boom! It shook the ground with a deathly thud as I ran the other way.

The lower six feet of the butt log was rotted and full of dead ants, but higher up the wood was in great shape.

When I cut a cross section, I realized: This is one old tree. I shut the saw off to count the rings.

The green ash was a sapling in 1894. The wood in the heart of the tree was at least 115 years old.

The rings tell a story, but it is difficult to interpret. For the first forty-five years of its life, the tree struggled, barely reaching six inches in diameter.

Then, when the 1940s hit, the tree sprung out of its doldrums. Something had changed. The rings expanded to more than ten times their previous width. The trunk swelled by leaps and bounds. What happened to cause the explosive growth?

The tree stood 50 yards from the swamp. I do know that in the 1930s, they dug a county ditch to drain the swamp, which then became a corn field throughout the Depression.

Did the tree lose its source of water? Is that why it grew so very slowly?

It looks as if the tree took off when the rains returned and the beaver dammed up the county ditch.

However, the vigorous wide rings were confined to one side of the tree. Why would the tree grow only on one side? Was it because the tree was tilted? Was it because the other side was shaded by the other half of the tree?

Then, in the past twenty years, the rings tightened again. The tree clearly wasn't getting as much moisture. Or nutrients. Or sun. Or something.

I sawed a cross section of the tree to take inside for closer scientific examination. However, I am neither equipped nor inclined to perform scientific examination. So, I stared at the wood slab and philosophized.

The ash tree was a marvel. Unlike most saplings near the swamp, it escaped the beaver. Over its century of life, it escaped windstorms, chain saws, hungry deer, bull dozers and other hazards.

The tree was a wispy adolescent sapling when William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan for the presidency in 1896.

When my great-grandfather Ole Johnson cleared the land to farm, he let that little ash tree be. When my grandfather mined the drained swamp for the peat it contained, he left the ash tree alone. When my father harvested ash from the swamp for firewood, he left the big old one at the swamp's edge. When I built trails through the woods as a teen, I went around the big ash.

Location, location, location. The key to the tree's long life was its fortunate location completely out of the way of humans, steel, engines and progress.

When I first sawed the thing down, all I saw was 10 days of fuel.

After the tree fell, I saw a history book. It felt irreverent to use the tree for firewood even though it was stone dead.

My sudden respect for the tree and my ring-counting reverie delayed the fate of the fallen trunk for exactly one day.

The next afternoon, practicality set in. The freshly-sharpened saw sunk through the trunk like a hot knife through butter.

The wedge popped the chubby cobs into fours with just a few swings.

That night, the first eight of the chunks went into the outdoor wood stove. As the temperature fell and December returned, the wood kept the house toasty.

I still have the slab.

But the rest of the tree, with all its history and nobility, will be reduced to ashes.

If it is any consolation, it will go out in a blaze of glory.

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