Andersen: Let the machine do it! |

Andersen: Let the machine do it!

I’ll always remember Dave for his faith in machines. Forty years ago, he operated a stump grinder, a noisy piece of machinery that ground tree stumps down to nothing. He was its master, but it mastered him, too.

I was young and strong and in my 20s, working on a tree crew on the North Shore of Chicago in the early ’70s. Our job was to take down trees stricken with Dutch elm disease. We were a silviculture wrecking crew.

Dave was built like a stump: short and wide. He operated his machine with proficiency, pulling hydraulic levers to swing the grinding wheel back and forth. That barbed wheel tore into stumps and sent the wood chips flying. Nothing could stop it but an exceptionally large rock.

We were on a job in Evanston taking down a huge elm with spreading limbs that spanned several fashionable homes. The Dutch elm disease was killing most of the elms on the North Shore, and we were the grim reapers.

Vanishing were the tree canopies that covered the streets of the affluent suburbs. Most of these trees were more than 100 years old. They stood with enormous trunks and huge, spreading branches that were as big as entire trees.

Taking down a tree of this dimension was a feat of mechanical engineering. Our topper, Scott, was a pro. He climbed the tree with spikes and roped into a central crotch high up in the tree. He ran a separate lowering line through several spreading crotches to distribute the weight of whatever he tied on and cut.

When Scott cut the limbs, they swung precariously on the rope. My job, as rope man, was to set them down before they bashed a window or crushed a chimney. With heavy coil in hand, I took just enough wraps around the tree that I could lower a huge limb with perfect control, ideally setting it softly on the log pile.

We were finishing this huge tree when Dave showed up to grind the stump. He got there early to watch the dropping of the trunk. The tree was notched, the back cut was made, and the trunk slammed down on a row of logs we had set out to cushion its fall. Water gushed from the stump, the capillary action pulling water from the roots and shedding the blood of the tree.

This work was intensely physical — hefting huge chain saws, dragging brush and carrying logs. Sweat poured from our tanned bodies and glistened on our pumped musculature. We were brutes, all but Dave.

He observed us with a chuckle because physical labor was beneath him. He liked to tell us that our labors were ironic in the age of machines.

While the log-grabbing claw of the loader truck was busy, I picked up a hefty limb and tossed it into the dump-truck bed. Dave came over and shook his head. “Let the machine do it!” he cried. “That’s what it’s for!”

I shrugged and tossed in another limb. “Let the machine do it! Let the machine do it!” That was Dave’s mantra.

Forty years later, I still refute his advice. I eschew snow blowers and instead scoop my driveway by hand. How silly, he would think, that I labor to do what a machine could do. He would say the same about the firewood I cut with a 4-foot-long hand saw and split with an ax. “Use a power saw and a hydraulic splitter!” he would fume.

If Dave were still alive (I assume heart disease got him years ago), he also might ridicule me for muscling a push mower over my lawn, for turning my gardens with a pitchfork, for hanging clothes on the line for the sun to dry.

For Dave it was, “Let the machine do it!” But it’s never been that for me. In true John Henry fashion, I keep doing the hard work by hand, not as a punishment but as a reminder that physical work is honorable and that health and fitness are the dividends of sweat equity.

There’s no machine that can pay those dividends.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached by email at

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