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Let the machine do it!

Paul Andersen

Our machine-driven age has many a dark side. Chief among them is ease, a vice that was modeled for me many years ago.

My teacher was Dave, a good-natured man who operated the stump grinder with a tree crew on the North Shore of Chicago, where I worked in my 20s. Our job was to take down diseased elms.

Dave was built like a stump: short and wide. He operated his machine with considerable skill, swinging the grinding wheel back and forth by working hydraulic levers.

The grinding wheel had barbs that tore into the stump and sent chunks of wood flying. Nothing could stop its destructive arc. It shook the very ground.

We were on a job in Evanston, taking down a huge elm, the limbs of which spread into a massive crown that spanned the roofs of several fashionable homes. Dutch elm disease had already killed most of the elms on the North Shore, and this tree was a remnant. Gone were the tree-canopied streets of Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park and Wilmette.

Taking down a century-old tree was a feat of mechanical engineering and physical strength. Our topper, Scott, climbed the tree with spikes and roped into a high, central crotch. He ran a separate lowering line, which was an inch around, through several spreading crotches to distribute the weight of the limbs he would cut.

As Scott worked methodically around the tree, the limbs he dropped swung precariously on the lowering line. My job as rope man was to lower them to the ground before they bashed a window, toppled a chimney or crushed a roof.

I took enough wraps around the tree with the lowering line that I could drop a 500-pound limb slowly or quickly, depending on how I wanted it to land. Smokin’ the rope meant letting a heavy limb run until the lowering line burned in the crotches of the tree with puffs of smoke.

As we finished up the job, Dave stood around waiting for the dropping of the huge trunk. Then he would play his role and grind the stump.

Ricky, our crew boss, notched the tree, made the back cut and stepped back as the trunk tipped, then slammed down on a row of logs we had set out to cushion its fall. Water gushed from the stump — the blood of a tree — as capillary action drew moisture from the roots.

This work was intensely physical, what with dragging brush and carrying logs in mid-summer heat. Sweat poured from our tanned bodies and glistened on our pumped musculature. We were brutes — all but Dave, the machine operator.

He observed us with a chuckle from the seat of the Jeep, with which he towed the stump grinder. Physical toil was beneath him, and he let us know that our labors were ironic in the age of machines.

When the log-grabbing claw of the loader truck was occupied, I picked up a hefty limb and tossed it up into the dump-truck bed. Dave came over and eyed me quizzically. “Why don’t you let the machine do it? That’s what it’s for.”

I shrugged and tossed in another limb. “Let the machine do it! Let the machine do it!” he chanted. This was Dave’s mantra, a cultural mantra that dominates today in an age of obesity and physical decay.

Forty years later I consider Dave’s words, and I still refuse to let machines do all my work. I shovel my driveway with a push scoop because I like the workout. I saw logs by hand and split rounds with an ax because it feels good on a winter day. I mow my lawn with a push mower because it feels right.

Like John Henry, I eschew machines and work by hand. It’s not about self-flagellation, but rather a sense of independence I get from earning sweat equity.

My Luddite ways may seem silly to some, but they afford me peace and quiet while making healthy demands on my aging body. I find satisfaction in manual labor and in simple tools. That’s the reason I’ll never just “let the machine do it.”

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at, andersen@rof.net.


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