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Napa Journal: Should homeowners be allowed chainsaws?

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Kevin Courtney masked

I looked it up: lumberjack is the most dangerous job in America.

If the professionals are getting hurt, what’s the fate of amateurs who mess around in their backyards with chainsaws?

I pondered this question as Cheryl oiled our electric chainsaw and prepared to put it in my hands.

I was giddy with both fear and delight. I was going to whack a 60-foot! A tree far taller than anything I’d ever attempted to bring down! But did I know what I was doing?

My inner lumberjack emerged after my next-door neighbors brought in a crew of tree trimming professionals and let them rip for two straight days.

I came home each night and stood in awe. Dead trees — gone! The overgrown shrubs between our two yards — tamed! Wild trees along their backyard creek — beaten back! A front yard palm — shaved like a pencil!

After the tree crew departed, the sun shone where it had never shone before. An old yard was made new. All of which got me to re-examine our own property.

Flowers grow pretty, then die. Not trees. They get bigger and bigger and sometimes transform into bullies.

Thirty or 40 years ago, Cheryl planted a baby redwood and a baby blue spruce. They went into the ground tiny. Today they touch the clouds. If either were to fall, you’d hear the rumble in downtown Napa.

More problematic are the trees that nature planted along our 100 feet of creek line, creating arboreal chaos. Trunks angle in all directions, desperate to find sunlight.

Amid this jungle, a tree of unknown lineage now caught my eye. It had its roots on the far bank, then snaked over the creek to our yard where it shot up 60 feet with no side branches and leaned into Cheryl’s prized redwood.

This no-name creek tree was attempting a redwood takedown!

This is how Cheryl came to dust off the chainsaw and I began devising a cutting strategy.

Fortunately, no ladder would be required. As I saw it, all I had to do was cut deep into the leaning tree’s telephone pole-like circumference, step back and gravity would do the rest.

Where exactly would the tree fall? I couldn’t say for sure.

It was likely to smash one or two of our backyard plantings. Perhaps the star magnolia or the spindly dogwood? Maybe it would be the butterfly bush? Or, more hopefully, an undistinguished juniper.

Precision was difficult, given the twist of the trunk as it climbed to sunlight, but I accepted the likelihood of collateral damage. What was clearer was the money we’d be saving by not hiring a professional.

Cheryl would later admit to having reservations about our do-it-ourselves project but at the time she said nothing. She subsequently kicked herself for her silence.

An electric chainsaw might not cut it in a real forest, but it’s mighty capable of backyard duty. Like a knife through frozen butter.

In less than two minutes I’d inflicted a mortal wound on our intruder tree. Soon after I detected a quiver.

Then it began its descent. Slowly, then faster and faster as I jumped back in awe. Crash, smash, tree carnage everywhere.

But as we waded into the debris zone, everything looked surprisingly OK. Missed the magnolia, the dogwood and somehow even the junipers.

But then, buried under the massive trunk, far from my cut, lay a shattered weeping Japanese maple. A $500 weeping Japanese maple that Cheryl had planted years ago as a backyard centerpiece.

We stood in stunned silence. How could this have happened? Why hadn’t one of us had a clue?

What followed were great lamentations — Cheryl’s lamentations as she dug out the severed branches of what had been her backyard beauty.

Two weeks have passed. More sunlight now falls on our landscaped creekside mound. The redwood is no longer under attack.

But the weeping maple is mostly a stump. Most poignantly, its few remaining branches are attempting to leaf.

Who weeps for a weeping maple? Cheryl does.


Take a tour of Napa's Food City, a classic art deco shopping center. Today, the center has a new majority owner with plans for redevelopment.


Kevin can be reached at 707- 256-2217 or Napa Valley Register, 1615 Soscol Ave., Napa, 94559, or

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