Keep Your Saw Sharpened

When I moved to Indiana, now over three decades ago, snow and sleet were at the top of my “most disliked weather” list. Cold temperatures don’t concern me so much, but driving on slick roads is something I try to avoid. Chalk it up to a few bad youthful experiences on North Carolina black ice. I’m still not a big fan of frozen precipitation, but these days wind has claimed the #1 spot on my most disliked weather list. That is not quite as ominous as Public Enemy #1, but it ranks right up there.

Movies like The Wizard of Oz and Twister could have influenced this change, but I think it is more a matter of recent experience. Stories about tractor trailer trucks overturned by gale force winds, or hurricane strength tornadoes get my attention, but they aren’t the reason for the change in rankings. The adjustment is the result of living in the woods for the last several years. Our home sits in a beautiful wooded area that is different with every season. Wildflowers in Spring. Dense, full foliage in Summer. Colors in Autumn. Even the look of light Winter snow on the forest floor and the evergreens that line our driveway. Each one has its magical moments. But whatever the season, add a day or two of 15-20 mile an hour winds with 40 mph gusts and things get a little eerie here under the trees.

A gentle breeze is nice. Tree tops blowing have a mesmerizing effect. But there is a tipping point where the whole affair acquires a menacing demeanor. A few weeks ago, we were sitting on the front porch enjoying a light wind during the afternoon. About 30 feet away a 20-foot-tall tree trunk, left standing after its top had broken a few years back, decided to take a load off its feet. We heard the cracking sound as it started to break. We saw it bounce once off the ground when it hit. It all happened so quickly we barely realized what was occurring before it was over. Our three cats scattered in different directions, leaving us to fend for ourselves. One disappeared for an hour. Another hid behind a wood pile. The third ducked under my chair where it crouched, growling at the fallen tree. Apparently, it was ready to defend us all, so long as I was expendable as its first line of protection. The rest of the afternoon was spent cleaning up the debris.

Therein lies my problem with the wind. Like a sloppy house guest who doesn’t clean up after themselves, it leaves a mess behind after it departs and you are left to restore order. A few leaves on the porch or twigs in the driveway are one thing. But our woods are filled with towering ash trees, many of which have succumbed to the dreaded ash borer. After the damage is done, they stand for a while, doing their best to add to the canopy. But eventually they come down. When they fall into the woods, that is a perfect ending. There they add to the landscape of nature’s cycle as they decay for a few years, gradually returning to the soil. It is when they fall across the driveway, blocking our passage, that they create problems.

One is a problem of timing – we rarely discover them until we are in the car headed out, and therefore need to be somewhere else. Like the cold January morning when we started to the airport at 3 a.m. for a flight to the warmer climate of Hawaii, only to discover our path was blocked by a casualty of the night’s wind. After backing down the drive to retrieve my chainsaw, I probably disturbed the neighbor’s sweet dreams sawing by the light of the car’s headlamps to open the drive. Or the November we returned from church to find that while we were gone, two large ash trees decided to bite the dust and had done so in a way that we had to leave the car and walk the rest of the way to the house. It makes me wonder, “Is there ever a convenient time for trees across the drive?” I’m guessing not!

The second is a problem of effort. It is work to saw and remove a fallen tree. Just last week I’d been thinking that if I were smart, I’d develop the habit of sharpening my chainsaw when I finish a job so that it would be ready to go when needed. Usually by the end of a task like that a person is tired and ready to be done with it all. Adding one more thing before putting away the saw is less than appealing. I thought it, but didn’t do anything about it. A couple of days later after 18 hours of 20+ mile an hour winds I was reminded of why it was a good idea. It was Saturday about dusk and we wanted to make sure we’d be able to get out on Sunday since we were scheduled to lead worship at a nearby Quaker meeting. As we walked the drive, sure enough, a casualty of the storm lay across the drive. Like good disciples, our trees seem to prefer to go in pairs of two.  If we hurried, we could at least cut them into two or three logs and roll them out of the way before nightfall, and return later to saw them into firewood length chunks for splitting. We succeeded, but I could tell the process was slowed by the fact that my chain wasn’t at its sharpest.

Over the years when working on do-it-yourself repair or construction projects, I’ve often remarked that jobs like that are much easier if you have the right tools for the job. Trying to cut away insulation from a wire with a pocket knife is doable, but it’s easier with a pair of wire strippers. Removing a nut from a bolt with a pair of pliers can be done, but a properly sized wrench works better. However, having the right tools is only one part of the equation. Keeping them in good working order is key as well.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the two woodcutters who had a competition to see who could fell the most trees in a day. One chopped all through the day never stopping for a rest even though he grew tired as the day wore on. The other stopped approximately every hour for 15 minutes and sharpened his ax. At the end of the day, much to the surprise of everyone else, he had cut much more wood than the first woodcutter. How, given that he stopped so frequently? Because he kept his ax sharp. I don’t recall where I first encountered that story, but it often pops up in material used by motivational speakers. I can attest that it is more than just a trite illustration. In the case of the chain saw, keep your chain sharpened. It will make lighter work of the obstacles before you.

It reminds me in a small way of I Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks the reason for the hope that is within you.” The focus of that advice relates to the hope of faith and the Gospel rather than sharpened saws, but the emphasis on preparedness is similar. If you’re not a New Testament fan, perhaps the Boy Scouts motto: “Be prepared” will speak to your condition. Or possibly the wise recognition that the time to work for peace is before conflict arises, not once you’re mired in the thick of it.  If none of those are to your liking, then simply look to life’s experience for validation of the point.

What is true of tools like saws has its place among life’s truisms as well. Passion and persistence are good qualities. They may keep a you working hard on the task at hand; but without preparation or attention to small but important details life’s way is likely more challenging than it needs to be.

We just can’t know with certainty what every day will bring. When challenges greet us, they never check our schedules first to determine if it is a convenient time. In those moments, there may be no one who can or will come to your aid. So, keep your saw sharpened. It is a simple lesson, easy to postpone or ignore; but in terms of time and effort, a little preparation can go a long way.

Further Reading

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