The Goose Creek Darwin Award Winner Announced

It was one of those perfect days, cool with new blue sky showing through shredding low gray clouds. Our son, Nathan, and Tsuga the Wonderdog and I were immersed in this place and time, there on the banks of Nameless Creek to enjoy, there to bring in one more load of firewood as a reason to be together before he headed back to Missouri on Sunday.

With the job done and as we prepared to go, I spotted a standing cherry snag near where we had been working. Ten inches at the base and truncated abruptly without branches at maybe 12 feet length, it leaned out 45 degrees about 10 feet up a leaf-strewn 45 degree bank.

It would be an awkward approach, especially for cutting a notch on the downhill side without sliding down the hill with a spinning chainsaw in my hands. So contrary to my better judgment but thinking the bit of tree rotten enough to snap and heading steeply in the right direction anyway, I decided to just cut through on the uphill side and let the weight of the tree complete the cut. Bad idea.

With the bar half way into the tree, the cut began to open on the back side. Another half inch, the tree was noticeably beginning to sag toward the floor of the meadow. I considered my path of escape, but as steep as the bank was and with the saw in my hands, I wouldn’t be able to move very far very fast, but no matter: this little chunk of tree would pose no hazard. What could go wrong?

Another half inch, and the velocity of fall increased and I turned off the saw and began to move laterally as much as I could. But before I had moved far enough, the tree dance took an odd turn. A slab of the uncut downhill third of the tree persisted six feet up and became a fulcrum point about which the remainder of the tree tipped. In this manner, as I watched in disbelief and in slow motion, the remainder of the tree trunk (not an entire tree, mind you, but still 3-400 pounds of wood) tipped toward the ground, hitting first on its top.

And here, another surprise: the top was far more resilient and alive than I would have guessed because (still in slow motion) as the top hit the ground, it did not break. Instead, it acted like a spring and threw the fallen body of the tree back up the hill, its cut end landing to the left and higher on the hill than the stump from which it had been cut!

And this, dear friends, was exactly where I had retreated to get out of the way of the wee tree as it fell. I reacted quickly. But not quite quickly enough .

Suddenly, I was on the ground, both legs out in front of me, and the left knee not exactly right. Considering what I had just seen coming my way (in slow motion) I wondered at first if I was dead, because the flash-forward scenario included this outcome. I’m gonna die.

To make a long and ongoing story short, after only a small persistently bleeding puncture wound to the knee cap, I had NO pain. I walked all the way down the valley to the house for some antibiotic ointment while Nate loaded the truck. (Yes, I’m sure I’m okay, I reassured him, and hoped I was right about this unlikely hope. He, understandably, was terrified to have watched his old man’s stupidity almost get him killed!)

After several hours of no pain whatsoever (adrenalin?) the pain did come, and the stiffness. And I have crutches for now. I went to a doctor friend’s house last night for a tetanus shot. And we’ll see where this goes.

I’m typing this from the laptop sitting sideways on the couch, because the knee is not happy about staying flexed. Ann will drive us this afternoon to take our son to the plane. I’ll ride in the back with m leg out straight.

It is a miracle I am only badly bent and not broke. Makes a fella believe in Woodlot Angels. I’m very thankful to be here drinking coffee, blogging…I swear life is interesting. As I was typing that sentence, a large flame leaped up from the top of the woodstove not four feet away. Ann, in charge of building the fire with me in my crippled state, left the freaking box of matches on the top of the stove!

I expect social services will be along soon to see about getting us in a rest home, for our own safety and health, you understand.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Been there. Done that myself.
    Very glad to see you survived.
    One word of advice based on personal experience.

    After a near-miss like that, your attention and everyone else’s can be stuck on the incident and the possible ramifications.

    Take extra care to see that you are completely in present time when you do things. Do not let your mind wander back to the incident while you are doing something else or you will pull in an unintended consequence.

    The old wives’s tale of accidents happening in threes probably stems from this phenomena.

    Hope to see you back on your feet again soon!

  2. My first and best impulse was to cut half through, and let gravity and time bring the snag down over the coming months or years.

    But lacking full presence of mind with Nate along and our conversation running constantly, I made what could have been a fatal mistake.

    Thought there for a fleeting instant that this was exactly what was coming down.

  3. Oh my! I’m glad you’re not hurt worse than the knee injury.

    I’ve seen that slow motion tree fall, with someone in the way, a couple times. Fortunately both times the person managed to get out of the way in time.

    I can also understand that sideways keyboard typing style, I’ve been doing it that way for a while now. But, you and I both are going to get past this and be out and about again soon.

    My thoughts to your son too. Watching that happen was probably more traumatic to him than to you.

    Rest and take good care of yourself.

  4. Exactly 1 year and 1 week ago today, I broke my leg in a”stupid” accident. Oh, how I feel for you but what doesn’t kill you makes you more careful. Have a speedy recovery and I pray 2008 is going to be a much better year for us all.

  5. Love your heart. That was scary as I read; I can only imagine how it must have been for you out there..whew!

    Feel better soon, and hold off on the rest home because I suspect you’d always be trying to sneak out into the woods, and be in so much trouble there…

  6. It’s noon the next day and I’m able to walk on the leg (if I weight bear on my toes so as to avoid the painful part of the stance phase of gait) and have found a pair of crutches in the back room in case I need them. Thanks for your concern, and for not giving me the virtual DOPE SLAP I deserve for being so careless.

  7. Damn lucky you weren’t alone…I had that epiphany on the top of a knob I was working my way up a few years ago…No one knew where I was or what I was doing as I went slipping down the side…A lot can go through your mind in that state of being…Including how dumb you were being taking risks like that at your (my) age and physical condition. It’s not something you tend to repeat…Take it easy would ya’. I still want a return visit to Nameless Creek…

  8. Goodness, Fred, that’s really scary. I’m so thankful that you escaped with minor injury. We can certainly all relate to those moments of inattention. Years ago, my husband badly broke his foot when a tree fell on it. He was “only going out for a few minutes” to chainsaw a few branches, so didn’t put on his usual heavy boots. Of course, that proved to be the one time a tree fell the wrong way. But I don’t think he’s failed to wear his boots since, while cutting wood.
    I pray you continue to heal!

  9. Just to let you know, nice people, that after a few hours of relative agony Saturday night, I am doing much better–barely a limp now mostly.

    What I have realized since going back through the events here is that I was injured on the side to which I was moving to get out of the way.

    Had I moved faster in that direction, I would have been crushed under the full weight and velocity of the tree. Instead, a glancing blow that didn’t even tear my pantleg.

    I consider myself most fortunate, by fate, chance or providence, as you will.

  10. After cutting down hundreds of dead trees to feed our wood stove, I’ve become convinced that the smaller ones are the more dangerous. The only one that nearly got me was a maple, also about 10″ in diameter. My own personal “kick-back” was from a white oak, about 20″ in diameter at the base. It was just from pure laziness that I didn’t notch the front. It’s truly an awe-inspiring sight to watch the butt of a tree seem to defy gravity with a mind of its own and rise way up, in seeming slow motion, and then pivot backwards. Fortunately, I had a clear lateral path away from it and I was lucky it didn’t come my way. Glad you escaped too. I never made that mistake again!

  11. Your blog is definitely an educational tool. I learn something new just about every time I read it. I planed on cutting my own wood when I got up there but now I don’t know….

    Glad you are doing well

  12. Ouch Fred, I’ve done it too, and the results are painful and slow mending. One can’t always predict how a tree will behave when it is being cut down. There have been several times when a perfectly reasonable approach to cutting down a particular specimen (with all the physics worked out in advance) resulted in it toppling into the beaver pond – and a few times when the the tree in question fell on me. Then there were a few times when the Stihl became wedged in the tree being cut and it took a few of us to get it out. Life is just one fine adventure after another. Hope you are mending fast. Cate

  13. Glad you dodged that bullet. I had a tree about 28’ in diameter, leaning 45 degrees. I started to cut it knowing it would fall the other 45 degrees but when I started to cut it I changed my mind because my chainsaw was only 22 inches. It’s a good thing I stopped. Here is what happened.

    I asked a logger friend of mine, a professional, to cut the tree. When he looked at it, he said it was a “killer” tree… “widow maker” was another term he used. When he cut the tree, it jumped back toward him about 6 feet and landed right where he had just been standing… a stump jumper, he called it. He was lucky enough to get out of the way but only by a few inches.

    When I thought about this a bit more what I realized was that when you start to cut a tree that is standing straight up, it very slowly begins it’s decent to the ground and gravity decides which way it will eventually go. This gives you a lot of time to plan your retreat. As it approaches the 45 degree mark, it is probably moving at maximum speed. But…

    When you cut a tree that is already leaning at 45 degrees, the pressure on the stump is tremendous and it is totally unpredictable when the wait of the tree is going to snap as you cut through it. In the case I mentioned here, when it snapped, it was on the ground in a blink of an eye. The fact that it was already at the 45 degree mark meant that maximum velocity would be reached as soon as the cut at the stump was big enough. No time to run at this point.

    Here are a couple of tips this logger friend told me… cut trees that are standing almost straight up using a rope to insure the direction of the fall. Wear a hard hat and cut anything… Branches, limbs, vines, small trees, out of your way that would block your retreat as the tree falls.

    Glad you are ok (almost). I retired my chain saw.