By Ernest Cooper-Bourn
The Last Will and Testament of a Dying Oak by Ernest Cooper-Bourn
T his oak tree, this giant of the forest, had stood on this very spot for a hundred years or more.
Its seed had been planted by a rascally squirrel of dubious character, who had stolen the acorn from the tree’s ancestor which had stood no more than a hundred or so yards away, and at that time was just as tall and proud as its offspring.
That tree is now sadly no longer with us. The squirrel had buried his
acorn in the ground under a tuft of grass, meaning to return when the days of plenty had long gone. But squirrels as we all know are notorious for their bad memories and this one was no exception, so the whereabouts of its secret store was soon just as much a mystery to him as it was to all others.
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow and this one was no exception, and if the squirrel had lived long enough it would surely have been thanked for the part it had unwittingly played.
A hush hung over the forest on this day, it was as if all were waiting for they knew not what, but they did not have to wait long for that which they feared the most, for strolling casually through the trees came a broad-shouldered man with bulging biceps, his passing brought a feeling of dread to every tree he passed, their branches shook and their leaves trembled with fear, for this man over his shoulder, carried a razor-sharp axe.
The woodman walked up to the oak and examined it carefully, making sure there were no signs of disease in its rough bark. He had orders for oak and had had his eye on this tree for some little time. He stood and looked up at the wide spread of this canopy and judged its height. He then paced out a line through the gaps between the other trees, equal to the height of the oak, and marked the spot with a small stick. This was to become the fell line.
The woodman took an enamel flask from his canvas shoulder bag, he unscrewed the cap which doubled as a cup, pulled out the cork and had a drink of cold tea. This done he approached the tree on the nearest side to the fell line, he widened his stance and without more ado he swung his ace. The dappled sunlight caught the razor sharp edge of the blade as it flashed through the air in a wide arc before biting deeply into the trunk, large pieces flew off at every stroke and soon the ground around the woodman’s feet was covered in chippings.
There was no let up as the axe bit deeply into the tree until it had almost reached halfway. Then the woodman stopped, wiped his brow and stopped for a breather, he had another swallow of cold tea before he renewed his attack on the tree, but this time from the opposite side, the ground around this side too was soon covered in chippings
as the axe bit its way slowly but surely towards the cut on the other side.
To give the tree its due it never complained, but bravely stood its ground until the inevitable end. The tree with now virtually no support began to sway and fall, there was a terrible tearing and wrenching noise as the remains of its trunk was simply torn apart, and without any effort on its part the tree fell exactly along the line the woodman had marked out for it.
As it fell it tore branches from trees close by, and when it hit the ground with an earth shattering thump, the branches on the underside were shattered and smashed. But now indignity of all indignities, as the woodman sat on the fallen tree trunk to eat his midday lunch, of doorstep cheese sandwiches, washed down with cold tea.
His midday meal over the woodman stretched and flexed his muscles; he then rubbed a steel over the edge of his axe and examined it closely, before lopping off the branches that had once formed the tree’s canopy. All we have now is a bare trunk, and its branches all now of a tangled heap.
The sun now flooded into the newly-made clearing, in spite of its daily efforts it had been kept out for many years by the magnificent spread of the canopy of the oak tree, and it now seemed to take great pleasure in highlighting the tree’s downfall.
Came the new day and noises were heard approaching through the trees. The woodman appeared leading a team of four magnificent draught horses, their tails and manes were cut to a regulation length, and their feathers floated above their hooves in the light morning breeze. With much clicking and clucking of his tongue the woodman turned the team, they then stood patiently as he fastened chains about the fallen trunk. He hitched these chains to the horses’ harness, and with no more than a ‘giddup’ the horse leaned into their collars as one, they took up the strain until the trunk began to slide over the rough ground. To give the trunk its due, whenever it passed over a soft patch of earth it tried to dig in the stumps of its branches in an effort to slow down or halt its progress, it was all to no avail, the horses simply pulled the harder, and the trunk was pulled unceremoniously out of the clearing it had known all of its long life.
The horses followed the welltrodden paths through the forest needing no guidance from the woodman. Soon they came to a clearing by a roadway in which had been built a wood yard and saw mill. The horses instinctively stopped at the side of a long steel saw bed, and with the use of pulleys and chains the trunk was loaded onto this by men who worked without speaking, neither to each other nor to the woodman.
Spaced along the edge of the saw bed there were steel arms which were hinged at the base, the tops were turned over at right angles and these were sharpened to a point. These points were hammered into the trunk to hold it in place as the bed moved towards the band saw, now started and humming, obviously happy in its work.
The band saw sliced through the outer section of the trunk and this slab was carried out of the saw shed by the workers, and laid bark down on pieces of wood laid crossways and spaced evenly along its length. The next slab was laid on top with pieces of wood known as spacers again evenly spaced along its length. In this way the tree was re-assembled but with gaps between the slabs, this allowed the air to flow through and this would eventually dry and season the wood. It would take some little time and the tree would see snow, wind, hail, rain and sunshine before it became seasoned timber, and was no longer a tree.
If, just before that drying, seasoning wind, whisked away the last drop of its sap, its very life blood, and, in that last moment, if the tree could in some way communicate it last wishes.
Could it not be forgiven if it simply asked for nothing more than for some of its smaller sections to be put aside, to be cut and shaped and formed into a rather grand, ornate coffin, but, for the personal use only, of the woodman, the man with the axe?