Home > 6. Ars Poetica: creating & surviving poetry > Chainsaws & the Rewards of Writing

Chainsaws & the Rewards of Writing

RT has found respite in a worthy activity: this weekend, for the first time in more than a couple of years, he has gone out and earned honest money. The work, however, has been highly unusual for him: he is helping a friend and her son clear their sizable property of fallen tree trunks and branches. He freely confesses that part of this work has involved the use of a chainsaw (in fact, more than one), by far the most powerful (and dangerous) machine he has ever operated.

Saw and axe (and while we’re at it, hammer and nail) share a peculiar place in the human imagination. As anyone who has read Gilgamesh has probably realized, this hero’s expedition to the Cedar Forest is merely the first recorded incident of mankind’s absolute obsession with felling trees. Why we must cut down the most beautiful forests (or climb mountains or erect standing stone pillars) is anyone’s guess, but the motivations seem intertwined with our deepest spiritual impulses. To panel the Sun God’s temple in cedar, to reach the habitation of the gods, to compass the stars are all ways of connecting with nature and the absolute, of rendering homage to the unfathomable.

And yet there is also no denying that these activities are among the most destructive we engage in. Perhaps the problem lies in stripping the sacred from human activity, of turning a temple into suburban sprawl, of creating traffic jams of people waiting to get to the top of Everest, of littering low Earth orbit with space junk. What began as worship has transmogrified itself into mountaintop removal.

I enjoyed working with the two chain saws–neither of them especially large and one adapted for removing low-hanging tree limbs. I am reminded of Rita Mae Brown’s advice–the intellectual work of writing should be balanced with physical labor. Or again, I think of William Faulkner’s sabbatical spent working in a factory–as Benito Juarez spent his exile from Mexico in the United States. For their own sanity, writers must occasionally engage in the first worship of physical exertion.


Latest update: i’m still helping my friend clean up the house, but now the work is decidedly less glamorous (but all the same, safer). Two weeks further into this gig I’m cleaning up several rooms that will be rented as an apartment. & these rooms have not been well-tended in some time: dirt, grease, dirty fridge…you get the picture. On the other hand, my boss is ADD and has *no* problem with me getting up to blog at 2:30 in the morning, since she (and often, her son) are up at the same hour doing whatever. & it’s nice having a room w/ a door i can shut & kitchen privileges.

What does this have to do with being a writer? I guess every writer needs to discover that an alternate universe exists where such things as ADD, writing, and the willingness to do manual labor are assets.      RT


Image: Early Mechanical Saw, 1860; Hamilton; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


  1. May 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    Love this, RT. Manual labor does connect us to a part of ourselves that is often neglected in the world we’ve constructed for ourselves today. We’ve moved so far away from our roots. Last week I was teaching my kids about the ‘old ways’ of making pottery from clay harvested from the earth, and it occurred to me that in spite of all that we have gained through the advancements of modern society we have lost one of the most important things- the ability to be self-sufficient. All that has been discovered and perfected by craftsmen over the centuries has been largely forgotten/abandoned in favor of mass-produced goods. In terms of writing I think engaging in work with the hands can open up ideas/memories in our minds that have been dormant- I don’t feel there’s a substitute for that satisfaction of an honest day’s work.

    • May 23, 2012 at 10:15 pm

      Emma: thx as always for your enthusiasm. There is a real struggle going on between technological innovation and maintaining an “art of living” that most people can use without too much difficulty. The 20th century ripped up our art of living; now the challenge is to get it back *without* the racism and dire poverty that attended us in the 1800s and before. We need a way of life that can be handed from generation to generation without the expensive educations and moving-target industries and skill sets that are making the economy so difficult to deal with. RT

  2. Sharon Sieben
    May 23, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    I love reading your prose. At first, I think I’ll come back and read it later, (when i have more time??) but end up staying tol the end after the first line.

    • May 23, 2012 at 10:19 pm

      sharon: I’m glad you enjoy my writing; this is one of the most rewarding feelings i get from blogging. & certainly I enjoy your paintings. RT

  3. aubrey
    May 27, 2012 at 2:13 am

    Boyfriend’s best friend has a boat that he’s refurbishing. It takes an ENDLESS time. I’ve helped a little – yanking out rivets, clearing out fiberglass…grunt work. At the end of the day, one does feel gratified, though a little scratchy (thank you fiberglass). The gratification might be because one has spent the day in honest physical exertion. Or it might be because this friend always treats his helpers to a slap-up dinner in town.

    It’s been a long time since we’ve taken the phrase ‘helping hands’ so literally.

  4. May 27, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Aubrey: a working force marches on its stomach (and on its sense of beauty)…thx for sharing your experience! RT

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