Chainsawing: A Love Story (Or Lack Thereof)


by Zoe Jennings It is easy to get pigeonholed into one field after graduating college. After majoring in journalism, I have ended up the communications person at most of my jobs and internships -- if you are a non-profit, I am the one to manage your struggling Facebook page, to edit grant applications, to throw together a promo video. Along the same lines, I have been typecast as an office person, and I have learned to think of myself as such: I struggle with machinery; I am “little,” never the person you would ask to carry one end of a couch; I have never done conservation, not even trail maintenance.

When I got into the thick of conservation and began using the chainsaw in October, I faced a kind of thinking and moving that didn't come intuitively. I would forget which hand was supposed to press the trigger and which was supposed to hold the handle of the chainsaw; could barely extend my fingers far enough to hit the chain brake, a safety precaution that keeps the chain from spinning unintentionally; and sounded unnatural when I gave a warning shout that a tree was falling, almost like a little kid impersonating an adult. In the months that followed, my progress was slow, almost imperceptible. Team leaders would show me how to hold the saw, where to put this foot and that foot, what to look out for. I would do what 4 years of reporting projects had taught me and ask clarifying questions. I would nod, yes, I get it, that looks easy. But then, when it was it was my turn to put the saw to the tree, I couldn't translate the instructions I had been given into my own movement. All I saw was a chain I had been warned could cut my leg off and a rock-solid tree that I couldn’t imagine being any other way. Again and again, I asked members around me if they liked chainsawing, and when they almost invariably answered yes, I asked why. It’s a challenge, they said. It’s like a puzzle, figuring out where a tree will fall and where to cut.

Finally, this month, I got it. After so many failed cuts, my chain raced through the front of the tree for the perfect initial cut. My second cut was messier and more pained, but, minutes later, my tree fell exactly where I had intended it to.

For me, this is the real beauty of ERT: for those of us who we are too small or inexperienced or too fitted for an office, it gives us the opportunity to explore our physical potential. In these painstaking five months, I have pushed through what felt like incompetence and learned that I am stronger and more resolute than I had thought.