Three months ago, I wrote about the lessons the Kinnickinnic River taught me when I kayaked in high, rapid water with my friend Adam. Nature continues to teach me, and once more, the hard, humbling way, but that approach is certain to capture one’s attention…

Since moving up to the hill with Clarence, I have spent countless enjoyable hours in the woods falling trees – mostly cleaning up deadfall – cutting them into manageable pieces, hauling them in, splitting them and stacking them. Mrs. tVM helps me most of the time. In two months, I estimate we’ve cut and stacked at least six full cords, maybe eight. It is excellent exercise and I liken it to working out with kettlebells.

While I exercise caution, particularly when I am alone, I learned on Labor Day morning that one can never be too cautious when performing a potentially dangerous task. A2D takes the lead.

holland patent
Holland Patent, circa 1979

I’ve been cutting wood since the mid-70s when we lived in Holland Patent in upstate New York. Mrs. tVM and I worked with my dad and heated two homes there with wood, no small task facing the brutal winters Upstate is known for accompanied by several feet of lake effect snow. When I wasn’t flying, I was cutting wood and found great pleasure in it. During a brief 18 months in middle Georgia and then in Defiance, Missouri, we were cutting wood regularly, this time to feed our fireplaces during the winter months, although we did heat the house in Defiance during a 3-day power outage in the middle of winter.

We’ve had many experiences cutting wood and never had a serious accident.

We intend to heat the home we are building up here on the hill with wood. Enough dead wood remains standing to heat us for the next few years before we have to consider taking down living trees. Yesterday, I selected a tall oak, dead in its high upper branches but trying to cling to life in the lower 40 feet. A solid, thick tree, it offered at least a half cord of burnable wood.

I cleared the undergrowth and small saplings around the base with a lopper then started my trusty Husqvarna and took out a deep wedge to direct the tree to fall into the grass. It did, perfectly, except for one large and seemingly random branch – a thick one just above the ‘Y’ where the trunk split into a pair of sibling trunks that rose another 30 feet.

I cleaned the trunk of larger branches, and Mrs. tVM hauled them clear of the main trunk to cut up later. I stared briefly at the large random branch that lay on the ground at a 45-degree angle from one of the two extending trunks. The other trunk rose to the sky. Shortly after I began to cut the random branch, it broke under the weight of the tree and the trunk creaked as it rotated quickly in my direction. I scrambled as best I could, but I wasn’t quick enough. The tree fell with its full weight on my legs.

I wailed and Mrs. tVM screamed and called to our friend Pete who tended his tomatoes not far away. He ran down and together they were able to lift the trunk high enough so that I could drag my legs out from under it. After lying on my back for five minutes with Clarence slobbering in my face, I climbed to my feet and slowly walked the 100 yards back to my hobbit hut. A grapefruit-sized hematoma swelled up on my right knee.

Although I was mobile, I decided a trip to the ER was the wise thing to do given that I have two artificial hips. Good decision. The x-rays revealed a non-displaced fracture of the fibula just below my left knee. ‘Non-displaced’ is good; it meant that a cast was not warranted, but I am wearing an immobilizer and struggling with crutches.

The initial lesson is that I must be more attentive to the small details when I approach every task. As Dwight and I used to discuss frequently during our years together in the aviation business, A2D: attention to detail. Had I done a better job studying the lay of the land and the lay of the log upon it, I might have predicted what ultimately happened when I severed the ‘random’ branch.

I am certain that each of us has the capacity to utilize A2D to make better decisions in our professional and personal lives. As it’s said, “A stitch in time saves nine.”

The bigger picture has become clearer over the last 24 hours since the incident. Mrs. tVM and my friend Pete picked me up as I hobbled out of the ER. I worked my way into his backseat. We hadn’t driven 30 seconds when I blubbered out, “I need to cry…”

I sobbed undisturbed for 60 seconds and during that time, I considered how blessed I am as I silently reviewed the many dire circumstances that could have resulted when the branch cracked and the trunk snapped over with the force of a three-ton tree behind it. Only the ground could have stopped it. The fact that it struck my legs and not my head, chest or abdomen enables me to write this ‘note to self’ today. Then there was the running chainsaw that I was able to keep extended away from me at arm’s length…

One thing is certain: my mission in life is not complete. I was spared by the tree, by God or both to finish it. I do not know what that mission is, but I will continue to search until I do.

Mitakuye Oyasin

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  1. Phil. 3:12-14: “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

  2. I am sure that our tribe is very blessed that you are still with us!
    Perhaps your mission, through your sharing with us your experiences, is to remind us that we are all blessed knowing you. Remembering back to your kindness to both my daughter and myself, I constantly try, when remembering you, to be a better man.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Chris. Your words are the most humbling yet significant comment this website has ever received. I am as grateful as I am humbled.