jeudi 31 juillet 2014

The nature of Sisyphus

The felled tree

Sisyphus doesn't grumble. Sisyphus doesn't complain. In fact, Sisyphus rarely speaks. Sisyphus does the job, whatever job -- the job doesn't matter --, and Sisyphus does not give up, ever.

My husband came home from work yesterday evening, and looked down from the stairway to where I stood on the loose dirt of the embankment below the tree, axe poised to take out another bit of tree flesh. I was alternating between sawing through the trunk with the chain saw and hacking away at it's circumference, reducing the size of the saw cut required to get through it, and now I was dealing axe blows. I had heard the motorcycle pull into to the space between the house and the garage, and he had certainly heard the axe head hitting tree.

"Do you want some help?"

I thought about it for a second, looking at him, waiting for my answer. To refuse was, a little oddly, unkind. It was also going a little too far. My elbows and shoulders ached. He was moving down the stairs, closer to me.


"But, why are you using the pickaxe, and not the chainsaw?"

"First, it's not a pickaxe, it's an axe." I knew he knew that, but it annoyed me. Everything was annoying me. "And, second, as I have pointed out, the chainsaw is too small to handle most of the jobs for which we need it around here."

"It was good enough for cutting the firewood," he said in his defense, and the rest trailed away, "but it's true we order it cut now."

"What is the harm, when we are buying one of a tool, to buy one that is bigger than we need for most jobs, but can at least do them when we need it for them?" I think he muttered back that he knew. I handed him the axe.

He positioned himself where I had been standing, and prepared to swing. The axe came down once, twice, three times against the trunk, higher by a good 8" from where I had been working to remove the wood. I waited for the silence between the third and the fourth hit.

"Why are you working up there? I was trying to remove a chunk from down there, near the chainsaw cut."

He considered it for a moment, and lowered the axe for the next swing. The axe came down again, once, twice, and he stopped and swore, then gazed up into the branches of the tree, draped in cascades of bindweed and choked to within an inch of its life by thick ropes of ivy. There were, actually, more ivy leaves than elderberry ones up there. I was losing my Sisyphean patience.

I said, as nicely as possible, "Did you come to help, or to complain and look at the tree because that isn't going to bring it down." This is how he works.

Sisyphus was seriously annoyed.

He raised the axe again, and it came down several more times. We changed places, giving each other a break, and then, just before a blow, he stopped and said, "My elbow hurts at the prosthesis."

That was alarming. Several years ago, he had nearly died falling from a high wall, head first, breaking the head of the radius badly shielding his head from the impact. His elbow took it, and the radius had finished several centimeters beyond where the elbow should be.

"Stop, please. Don't do it. It isn't worth it. I can bring this tree down."

"Why don't you wait until Thursday, when we can rent a bigger chainsaw and save you this trouble? We can saw straight through in minutes."

I knew that. I had already thought about that.

"Why Thursday?"

"I am on duty tomorrow night. Wait and we can do it when I am home after."

"I am perfectly capable of renting a larger chainsaw on my own," I said, turning away from where I was preparing to start at the trunk again to face him.

"Yes, but I can help you when it gets dangerous, when it's ready to come down."

This time, I looked up at the tangle of ivy and bindweed over my head, and turned back to him.

"I have brought trees this big down here before, several of them. I can do this one, too."

I did not say that I could not stand the idea of waiting. Why? I could do other things. I knew it. I looked down the length of the light guage chain-link fencing on top of the embankment, sagging under the weight of the ivy using its posts for shoulders upon which to sit and sprout magnificent balls of shiny dark green leaves, like heads with bouncy green afros, which I had already trimmed. They annoyed me, too.

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I could return to cutting the ivy out from the chain-link behind the posts, and snipping away the inside layer of rusted chain-link. I could very well do that and rent a chainsaw to bring the tree down Thursday. This was a perfectly reasonable proposition and alternative.


Sisyphus had just spoken, and we both looked a little surprised.

"It's alright. I can do this."

I must have stopped soon after. It was getting late. I was tired. There was dinner to make, and I had just admitted that nothing could stop me, not even perfect reason. I am rational enough to understand reason, even to reason, but something stronger takes over. A glimmer of new penetration and understanding caught my eye from between the comingled leaves of ivy and elderberry.

I had all the following day to reflect on that. In fact, I had as much time as it would take me to bring this tree down. I looked back at the trunk after my husband began the climb up the stairs to the house, and tried to estimate just how much time. There was progress. At least half the trunk was removed. I looked at my tools -- an axe, a sledgehammer and wedge, and a puny chainsaw --, and my resolution set. I have a tempered will, but why? Why had I never stopped to wonder why, or even if it was really such a thing about which to crow? It was not entirely true that Sisyphus does not complain. Sisyphus does a lot of that, actually. No, not while she is doing the job, whatever job, the job doesn't matter, but after, when she feels undervalued, then Sisyphus delivers speeches containing strings of charges and complaints.

The axe fell again and again, and the chainsaw screamed and smoked its way deeper and deeper into the flesh of the tree, and Sisyphus considered why. She scrutinized her progress with the tools at her disposition, the only ones of which she would avail herself, like a settler, a woman bound to survive and make a life, even, and planned her way through that trunk. She looked up at the leaves not to breathe, but to consider the angle of the trunk, the mass of the higher, nearly vertical branches, the location of the neighbor's chicken abadoned chicken coop, a tile-roofed masonry structure, solid, but not something she cared to demolish for him, bringing down the tree that diminished both of their pleasures in their properties, and calculate which way it would most likely fall because fall it certainly would. Failure, for Sisyphus, is not an option, and failure to fell this tree was out of the question. It was coming down, and it was coming down as soon as physically possible.

But, still, she considered why. Why did it matter so much? Why had it all -- all of these gigantic, absurd, time-consuming and repeated projects -- mattered so much? Sysphisus thought she knew. It took only to see the question, and wonder why she had been unwilling to ask.

This was not the same tempered will and determination that saw her and Fibs out on the trails, galloping across the field, listening to the rhythmic snort of his breathing you only hear at a gallop, and that she had only heard on the piste jaune at Maisons-Laffitte, the racetrack, or from the horses in the highest level show jumping events, heard her horse just below her body breathe this way, carrying her on a journey and in the delight of movement, even though they were related. No, this was something else altogether. Perhaps, though, she considered, it took that other determination to hint at the difference and give rise to the reflection that brought with it the realisation that she had been fighting a battle, not against nature, not for the glory of the victories she counted as hers, even if they later proved less worthwhile and satisfying than she had imagined, and created a lot more work for Sisyphus along the way.

Sisyphus, it happened, was not happy. The work, the jobs she executed, whatever job -- the job didn't matter --, was an expression of her tempered will in opposition to every other force in her life. It started as something to do: resurect a tangled, lost garden and make it beautiful; but, it had become a struggle, a fight. It was supposed to redeem the garden and herself;  it had became her weapon, her means of punishment for everything else, and a shield all at once.

The too small chainsaw weighed a ton. Her arms ached. And then it's teeth caught flesh, and it moved, screaming, but without smoke, through the last bit of fiber. It was almost done. She inserted the wedge and considered the weight of the sledgehammer. It wasn't for much longer. After the blows, she listened for the cracking, racing backwards to get away from the trunk in case that last groan was the end before it fell.

She sent a message on Facebook, "I feel kind of badly."


"It was a living thing."

"It will be alright."

"The tree or I?"

"LOL. You."

She took a photo of the tree trunk, now sitting on the wedge instead of the lower part of its now severed self. The wedge knocked out, a long electrical cord tossed up into the crotch of a branch and the trunk, and a game of tug-of-war later, rocking the tree forward and back, the trunk slid off its perch, and the tree fell back. Not forward. Back.

Sisyphus muttered, "Shit."

She thought she would feel triumphant. She only felt depressed.

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