Woodman Spare That Tree

We’re down in the cellar. The door is open, and a cable is trailing from the electrical socket above the washing machine. It goes down through the backyard, across the backstreet, and onto the allotment.

I point to the orange safety helmet, with its mesh visor and ear defenders. Bryan shakes his head. He’s wearing a woollen cap over his shaven scalp. I offer him a pair of sturdy leather gloves. “Naah, it’s reight.” He’s wearing woollen mittens, worn and fingerless. At least he’s got his leather bomber jacket, scuffed and scarred as it is by years of use in the building trade.

We make our way to the untidy, overgrown allotment. We look up at the tree: it’s a Spanish Laurel - at least, that’s what it said on the label, when I bought it as a small shrub, years ago. The keen gardeners among you can look at the leaves if you want to identify it more accurately.


It’s a tall tree now, forking into four or five thick branches, though it’s hard to count them with such dense foliage around them. It overshadows everything else, threatening to overwhelm the camellia and the flowering cherry, and it blocks the view from my neighbours’ rear windows. And yet, it’s a handsome specimen, upright and imposing, with fine glaucous-green foliage…

Even as the electric chainsaw chatters into life, I want to cry “Woodman, spare that tree!” But no. It’s got to go.

Bryan knows what he’s doing, despite his disdain for protective clothing. He clears the bottom branches up to shoulder height, and I drag them down onto the grass. Then, he takes a bow saw and begins to work his way up the tree, branch by branch, leaving short stumps to stand on as he goes.

It’s hard work, but by the end of the afternoon only the main trunk is left. He ties a rope to the top of it, and throws it to me. He descends, and picks up the chainsaw again. He starts with a v-shaped cut in the side facing me. Then, he slices through from the other side. It doesn’t take long, as I take up the strain on the rope to make sure that it falls in the right direction. A crack, a crunch, and it’s all over.

All over, that is, bar cutting it up into logs, and piling up the thin, whippy branches that are left to be burned at a later date. It takes another long and laborious afternoon. It’s surprising how much there is to recycle. Bryan fills bag after bag with logs to take home for his open fire. And then, he brushes up the piles of sawdust. When I ask him why, he says it’s for his ferrets. Yes, he does!

As we work, he teaches me the basics of chainsawing technique, which is better than trying to learn from an instruction manual alone. The chainsaw is surprisingly heavy. After five minutes, my arms are aching. As we talk, I tell him that I still regret having to cut down such a fine specimen of a tree. He shakes his head, and points to the tree stump down below us. “See that brown? In the middle there? That’s rot. It was rotten inside, all the way up the trunk. That’s why I got through it so quick.”

I look down at the larger logs below. Yes, there it is. I can see what he means. “It’d’ve rotted right through and come down by itself one day. An’ then it might’er done some real damage.” I thank him, as he goes, and he says he’s enjoyed himself, being in the open air and doing something not just for the money.

Well, that was a few months ago. Why do I find myself mentioning it now? Let’s ask Alice. Here she is, in Chapter Nine, in conversation with the Duchess.

She had quite forgotten the Duchess by this time, and was a little startled when she heard her voice close to her ear. “You’re thinking about something, my dear, and that makes you forget to talk. I ca’n’t tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit.”

"Perhaps it hasn’t one,” Alice ventured to remark.

"Tut, tut, child!” said the Duchess. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

Well, there you go. What? You want me to find it for you? Why don’t you do it yourself, you’re sitting there doing nothing much at the moment! I suggest you start with your personal life, and your walk with God, and move out into the wider world when that’s done. What? You don’t know where to begin?

All right, if you insist. But this is just to get you started.

As a young man, knowing nothing much about anything at all, one of the very best pieces of advice ever given to me by another Christian was this: “If in doubt, cut it out.” Did I take this advice? Occasionally, yes; but mostly, as Bryan might have put it: “Naah.” And now that I’m old enough to look back and see the pain caused and the damage done, all I can say is, “If only. If only...”

There’s a moral there, whatever age we are now. If in doubt, cut it out, cut it off, or, as with that fine-looking Laurel - cut it down, consign it to the flames, and find forgiveness.

Woodman, don’t spare the diseased tree.

Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways! You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules. I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me! How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! (Psalm 119.1-12)