May 20, 2019

The Shortest Distance

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

I’m sure whichever mathematical genius gained immortality by figuring that out was a lot smarter than me.  No doubt.  Absolutely.  Far be it from me to doubt the Heroes of Geometry.  Unfortunately, laws and axioms leave out a great deal more than they say.

A few weeks ago, I took down that huge, old basswood tree in our south woodlot.  It’s not that it’s great wood.  Neither are we short of fuel.  Maple trees split and drop limbs.  Elms die of disease.  Birches blow over in the least excuse of a wind.  Black cherry trees are a law unto themselves.  I’ve never figured out what makes them prosper or perish.  In any event, we’re blessed with a more than adequate supply of excellent firewood.   But this basswood tree was dead.  The last vestige of greenery departed in the middle of summer.

“Might as well take it before it rots,” I commented to Wendy.  “Plus this way we won’t have to look at it.”  Then I fired up the Model 30 tractor, hitched the woodcart and collected the various and sundry implements, tools, chains and supplies needed for the job.

As I say, it was a huge, old tree.  As is true with a lot of basswoods, this one was multi-stemmed.  Each of its three trunks was a good twenty inches in diameter.  If that doesn’t bring to mind the tree, think of it this way:  It took two tankfuls of fuel to saw up.  Yeah.  Even for my saw, that’s a big tree.

I parked the tractor farther away than the tree was tall.  (Don’t ask how I learned that lesson.)  Then I donned my safety equipment and got to work.  Perhaps you heard me.  The saw was loud and each section of that tree came down with an horrendous crash.  At least they landed where I wanted them to.  More or less.  They didn’t hang up in other trees.  That’s the big thing.

Then I sawed all of it into stove-length pieces.

That last bit is easier to write than accomplish.  Much.  But when finished, I gave myself a pat on the back.  The tree was down, cut up and ready to go.  All I had to do is haul it home.  I checked my extremities, noticing that all of them were still present.  A good sign.  Things were going well.  I felt positively smug.

You’d imagine that I’d have more sense than to congratulate myself before finishing a job.  I didn’t.  Experience is supposed to be the best teacher, too.  I’d say some men you just can’t reach.  Because you’d imagine that I’d smarten up as well, but so far, it hasn’t happened.

Instead I visually measured the distance between the tractor and the tree and chose the shortest route without a second thought.  I backed the tractor down across the ditch, through the woods and up beside all that stove wood.
The day was overcast but not terribly cold.  That is to say it was above freezing.  The frost hasn’t set in hard, at least not at our place, not yet.  An inch of mud coated the ground.  I took off another layer of clothing and started.  It was warm work.

Our woodcart is equipped with double, pivoting dead-axles.  Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not criticizing it.  It’s a good set up.  Weight isn’t an issue ― at least not to the cart.  It’s standard practice to load it with all that fits.
I did.  And then some.

Last I climbed on the tractor and fired it up.  The Model 30, Cockshutt tractor is a nice machine.  Ours has ring chains on its big 38-inch drive wheels.  It plowed straight through the ditch, digging down through the frost in the process.  It even clawed its way up the other side.

The woodcart was another story.  It hasn’t anywhere near the clearance of the tractor.   The tires aren’t very wide, either.  Plus it was heavy.  Very heavy.  It reached the bottom of the ditch and just kept going.  Down, down.  Down.  It didn’t stop until the wheels, axles and tongue were completely sunk in the mud.  All that wood remained piled above the undercarriage with only the bottom keeping everything afloat.

In fact, for all the lower half of the cart you see, it looked as though I’d built a fence around a pile of stovewood.  Okay.  But why do that in a ditch?

My language, bent, deteriorated and blue, was louder than the saw or even the tree when it crashed.   Perhaps you heard that, too.  That’s true even though technically the tractor wasn’t stuck.  Of course the woodcart was completely mired.  But since I couldn’t disconnect the two, what difference did it make?  The drawbar was buried, the hitch at an angle.  With all that weight on the pin, an excavator couldn’t have pulled it out.

Of course if I had an excavator I wouldn’t have bothered trying to pull the pin.  I’d have yanked the whole thing, tractor, cart and wood out of the mud and been done with it.  But nothing short of that could have accomplished it.
Alas!  I haven’t got an excavator.  I stared at the mess long enough to realize there weren’t any options and no escape.

In the end, I did what I had to, what was clearly the solution as soon as I saw the problem.  I unloaded all that wood.

Empty, the tractor pulled the cart to solid ground, no problem.

Then I reloaded the entire thing one more time.  Those bottom rounds weighed considerably more by the third time I shifted them all around.   In fact all that wood did.  I’m not making it up.  My mind wasn’t playing tricks.  Exhaustion hadn’t claimed the better of me.  Not quite.  The wood was layered in mud.  Laminated.  Painted and caked.  Smeared and globbed.

So was I.

I’m sure that I smelled like a locker room, too.  Worse.  I stood staring at the scene of carnage, shaking my head, slowly absorbing the truth.  If I’d gone the long way around to the far side of that tree to collect all that wood, I could’ve avoided crossing the ditch.  If I’d avoided the ditch I wouldn’t have gotten stuck.  If I hadn’t gotten stuck I wouldn’t have had to load, unload and reload the cart.  And that’s saying nothing about all that mud.  I still have to unload that and short of a driving rainstorm, I don’t know how to do it.

So don’t tell me that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Laws and axioms leave out a great deal more than they say.