Putting Down Roots

Donald Shephard

When Colleen and I moved to Mendocino in May we knew we had to volunteer in order to put down roots in the community. The other morning, as I climbed the knoll towards our house, I saw a steady trickle of water coming from the neighbor’s property into the roadside ditch. A water leak is bad news. The homeowners’ association board members would have to fix it. Tree roots had probably damaged the line and caused the leak.

On seeing Jim, a board member, I greeted him and said, “Need a hand?”

“Well you can watch. I love this stuff.” He grinned, as he took a chainsaw and ladder from his truck bed. He was to cut some low-hanging branches from a row of tall pines to allow access for a backhoe to dig a trench down to the water pipe.

“You cut and I’ll pull the branches out of our way,” I said. “Well, OK,” he said grudgingly. I was horning in on his fun.

Jim is a retired orthodontist who raced cars as a hobby. He has a high tolerance for risk. He propped the ladder against a tree, donned his hardhat and ear protectors, started his chainsaw, and climbed up. Do not do this at home. Jim is a leftie. With his right hand on the ladder he swung the roaring saw up over the pine branch with his left hand and watched it kick back. Having moved up the ladder a rung, he tried again, this time holding the saw with two hands and balancing himself with his arthritic knees between the ladder sides and rungs.

About this time, I remembered that I am an oral breather. There I was looking up a tree at a chainsaw-wielding orthodontist with my mouth agape. I questioned the wisdom of my position. I remembered that I was putting down roots and kept my mouth firmly shut.

The first limb fell more or less where he wanted it. That is it hit the ground before it hit the ladder. Fortunately, he did not fall. He decided it would be prudent to remove some of the weight from the next limb before climbing the ladder. He reached as high as he could and cut a chunk off. As Newton discovered before Einstein complicated matters, gravity is fairly predictable. Jim dodged the heavy limb in the nick of time.

The third limb was the largest but he could not reach any of it from the ground. When he cut the branch, the tip end crashed to the ground but the bough end hung on by a shred of wood. Jim swung the saw at the offending wooden tendon but it clung to life and limb with great tenacity. It kicked the saw back at Jim. He swung again.

“I think it will fall now,” said the would-be Paul Bunyan, “Give it a yank.”

“ You get off the ladder first,” I demanded.

“What?” He yelled. I pointed at him and then the ground. He came down. I yanked. The branch crashed into the ladder knocking it into the next tree.

Dennis, another board member and fellow retiree, arrived with a larger chainsaw. After Jim introduced me, Dennis went off for some work gloves. He returned, eating a burrito, after we had toppled the last branch.

Jim and I began digging. Rick, the homeowners’ association president, arrived and introduced himself. Elmer, a slightly stooped elf of a man with a white, hairy smile of a beard, appeared through the pine trees. Ed came up from the house below. Now we had six retirees standing around a hole in the ground discussing the best approach to the problem. Dave, the water-master, came and took charge. He wanted some more limbs cut and pointed to a spot under the tree where the water had been pouring forth.

“Dig there,” he said.

Jim and I dug where Dave had told us. Jerry, the backhoe man, arrived and easily set up, swung the backhoe around and with a flick of his finger cleared all the pine needle cover in an arc under the trees. We had sweated for nothing. Mere mortals cannot compete with the awesome power of hydraulics. We were ready to lean on our shovels and “superintend”. But Jerry was leery of cutting a phone line. He would only take off about eighteen inches of soil. He actually did the easy part of removing the beautiful rich, black loam and exposing the yellow clay that lies under it. The clay had been soaked all around by the leak and become a clinging quagmire.

Jerry thought he could see a change in soil type indicating the disturbed soil of a trench.

“Dig over there,” he pointed.

Jim and I jumped into the hole and began digging again. Soon, we were shoveling as much water as clay out of the hole. There was a sucking noise as each shovel broke from the ground. Rick suggested that we needed a probe to locate the pipe. Absent a probe, Jim and I kept on digging.

It was all in vain. When Dave returned, his probing quickly found the pipe where he had first told us to dig.

“Dig there,” he said.

We began again amid various suggestions from Dennis, Rick and Elmer. Rick asked if Jerry would dig us a sump to drain off the water.

“Nope,” Jerry replied, “I don’t want to cut a phone line that would cost several thousand dollars to repair.” Jim and I sloshed away. Dennis asked if Jerry could dig out a particularly large root to ease our way but, of course, the phone line might be beneath it.

Jim stopped digging, climbed out of the trench, and came back with his chain saw. He started it up just as I pulled my clay-laden boots free and climbed out of the hole. It is one thing to be on firm ground with a chainsaw wielding orthodontist, it is quite another level of misjudgment to stay in a muddy hole with one. As he cut the root, a rooster tail f watery mud rose from the chainsaw, flew up between his legs and splattered Elmer standing behind him on the bank. Elmer turned his back to defend himself and was covered back and front head to toe in clay. He looked like a sculptured garden gnome ready for the kiln. Jim removed the root and Rick replaced me in the hole. Apparently the old valves that control the water flow had not been completely shut off. We had been digging in a river. Dave went to a fire hydrant and drained the line. Jim got a hand pump and I brought my bucket to bale out the hole. Rick brought two garden hoses to siphon out the water. Jim sat in the clay while he pumped. I stood in the hole and handed the bailing bucket to Elmer. Dennis went to get himself a sandwich – his second breakfast.

Jim and I returned to the messy work of digging. Jim pulled on a stringy chord but it was a root not a phone cable. I uncovered a coax TV cable. It ran across the main trench at an angle. We never did see a phone line. Jerry became brave and ventured a few scoops of clay soup. His bucket just barely nicked the waterline and cracked it above the main leak. Now we had two leaks. Jerry also took a bite out of the soil above the TV cable. A man in a hole with a hand shovel would feel the tug of a two-inch plastic water pipe but a backhoe operator does not. Fifteen feet of black plastic were yanked free of the clay. It was the water line to Ed’s place.

Now that the water was drained from the pipeline, and now that our various efforts to bail, siphon and pump the water out of the hole had succeeded to a degree, Dave was able to fit patches around the leaks in the line. Dave climbed into the hole with a replacement line to Ed’s house and began heating it with a small blowtorch. Jim reached for his chainsaw to tackle another root and I was between the two with my feet stuck firmly in the clay. I made a huge sucking noise as I heaved myself out of the hellhole of Texas chain saw massacre and blowtorch wielding horror.

After Dave fixed Ed’s water line, Jerry easily filled in our diggings with his front-end loader. To give his machine better access to the dirt, he pushed half the pine branches uphill and left them there. After he left, I volunteered to put all the branches and roots into a single pile.

Jim was a mud pie with perfect, white teeth. I was not sure that his wife would recognize him and let him in the house. He left to clean up. Dennis and Rick went off to have a very late lunch. I did not see elfin Elmer leave. Perhaps he disappeared into the trees the same way he came.

As I trudged up and down the hill lugging the severed limbs (of the trees that is), I admired the beautiful seascape and pondered. I thought about these six old men toiling for the common good. Norman Rockwell would have painted a wonderful picture of us all in and around that mud hole. I also thought that I had begun the long process of putting down roots in Mendocino. I had produced a single, fine rootlet.

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