Underground Octopus

Every visit to our country place, located by a small lake, starts with a routine inspection of the property to check what, if anything, has happened during our absence. Before leaving, I always rake over the sand by the shore, so that any new foot prints would show. I do admit that looking for signs of intruders by checking the sandy shore for foot prints could be regarded as somewhat obsessive – even paranoid – but innocent.

Another important ritual involves fetching a garden fork from the tool shed and, where the green slope meets the sandy beach, driving the fork vertically into the ground. I move step by step, from left to right, lean on the fork and prod the ground to feel if there is any resistance which may indicate the presence of tree roots. Why, you may ask, is this necessary? It is, but to answer your question, we must go back to a series of events which started over seven years ago.

At that time there was no beach to speak of, just a waterlogged area of tall grass, reeds and gravel washed up from the lake. The only thing that thrived there was an enormous old weeping willow. Over the years the tree had spread its branches so much that it in effect had occupied the shore and blocked our access to the lake. Whenever we tried to catch a glimpse of the setting sun over the lake, that darned tree was always in the way.

One day, seven years ago, I had just got tired of looking at an enormous tree. It had to go. The decision was made.

Full of enthusiasm, l fetched my ladder and a large bow saw to attack the tree. I started at the top, or rather as high up as I dare climb. The thinner branches were the first to go. That was easy, I thought, no problem, even though the saw was a bit rusty and not very sharp. The tree responded by releasing a flow of sticky sap where I started to saw. This clogged up the teeth on the saw. It took me an exhausting weekend to get through all the thinner branches. All that was left was the tree trunk, over three feet across with bark like rough vertical ribs. About six feet above the ground the trunk divided into three thick boughs, now deprived of their branches and leaves. The naked tree was about 25 feet tall in all, the three boughs stretching up into the sky like outstretched arms.

Pleased with myself, I asked M to come and look at the result.

She glanced at the enormous pile of branches, sighed, and in that down-to-earth voice of hers, said:

“Curb your enthusiasm. It’ll grow lots of new shoots where you’ve sawn off the branches. Be worse than before.”

No more was said. We drove home.

Three weeks later I was back, aching muscles forgotten and determined to beat that tree. M was right of course – new shoots had pushed their way through the bark where I had sawn off branches. No problem, I said to myself, this time I am going for the big one, the trunk.

My strategy was clear. First a V-shaped cut in the direction I wanted the trunk to fall, then a single deeper cut lower down on the opposite side. I had a new sharp blade for the saw and a motley collection of axes and wedges, some rather ancient. I started about three feet above the waterlogged ground, just below where the trunk split into three massive boughs. The ground was waterlogged and very soon I was standing with mud half way up my rubber boots. But I persevered.

By lunchtime I had cut out the V-shaped wedge to ensure that the tree would fall away from the shore and end up safely in the field above. At least in theory.

I struggled all afternoon to get through the trunk, bending lower to get a horizontal cut but without ending up in the mud. The saw kept getting stuck in the dense core of the tree and I had to hammer in wedges to pull it out again. Then I needed to hammer in more wedges to release the first wedges.

From time to time I leaned against the trunk, giving it a good shove with my shoulder and listening for the first sign of splitting wood. After two hours or so, knocking in two thinner wedges, I heard a dull groan from the trunk. Was it giving up the battle at last?  I leaned my right shoulder against the trunk again and pushed with all my weight in the direction where it was to fall. Nothing happened. I tried a series of short sharp pushes and then it started to wobble gently back and forth. Now I’ve got it going, I thought, and with a new sense of urgency started pushing the trunk back and forth. Suddenly a loud crack and it was falling. I had planned to shout “Timber” like a Canadian lumberjack, but realised it was falling in the wrong direction. I tried to jump out of the way but my rubber boots had sunk down into the mud and were stuck. Fighting against the suction, I fell over on my back, landing in the field but leaving my boots behind. The tree fell in the other direction, across the shore and into the reeds, with an enormous crash.

M came running down when she heard the noise.

“You survived?” she asked.

“Fell the wrong way, the bugger!”

“Trees can do that!” she said. “Tea’s on.”

I pulled my boots out of the mud, collected my tools and went looking for some dry clothes.

A week later, appetite whetted by my success with the tree trunk, I decided I had to get rid of the enormous stump that was left. Then I could see us sitting here in our beach chairs, looking out over the lake and drinking a cold beer.

Pulling on my wellies again and taking my expensive ergonomic spade from its hook in the shed, I marched off down to the shore to complete the job. The tree stump stood there in a grey pond. Nothing to it but to dig up the mud, free the tree roots and pull up the stump, or so I thought.

 I started digging a trench around the stump, lifting up spadeloads of a black putrid mass, releasing a rotten methane smell as the decomposing organic matter came up out of the water.  Luckily there was a fresh breeze from the lake. Then I continued to the next layer – heavy thick grey clay. The more I dug, the quicker the hole filled up with water from the lake. I discovered while digging that the old tree had an enormous network of roots which fanned out in the direction of the lake, reaching out under the shore to reach the water. Three of the main roots were as thick as my arm. After all my excavations, the stump and exposed roots were coated in wet mud. In the fading afternoon light it looked like a giant octopus with underground arms.

Home again I gave some serious thought to what I was doing. I could just leave the mess and forget about it, but there was no turning back.

M: “You can’t leave it like that, a muddy lake. It could swallow one of the grandchildren! Or the neighbour’s cat.”

Options available included a stick of dynamite, chain saw or the neighbouring farmer’s tractor. It could have been quite fun, despite the collateral damage, but no! That autumn I did build a traditional bonfire on top of the stump in a half-hearted attempt to get rid of it, but the wood just smouldered for a few days and ended up blacker and harder than before. An evil looking black octopus. Before winter set in I cleared some smaller trees and bushes further along the shore, to have something to show for all my work.

The next summer we were in luck. The level of the lake was lower than normal and the land closest to the lake had dried out. The octopus was still there, no longer sitting in a pool of mud. Instead the tree stump was stranded in a dry hollow, roots exposed where they joined on. My first thought was: Climate change! But no, there was a more down to earth explanation. The water in the lake flowed downstream via a narrow creek which eventually took it all the way to the Baltic Sea. The creek had been blocked by some industrious beavers. Local farmers shot the beavers, demolished their dam and lodge, the creek started running again and the water level in the lake went down.

So, back to work. I got out my saw and quickly cut off the roots from the tree stump, making it possible to lever the stump out of its hole and roll it into the nearby woods. The head and body of the octopus were gone.

To recover from this sweaty job I got out a beach chair and beer, looked out over the lake satisfied with a job well done. M joined me.

“You aren’t planning to leave the roots are you?” she asked,

“Well, maybe….. It’s a lot of work …. They can stay there underground can’t they?””

“Up to you, but lots of new willows will shoot up from the roots in the spring.”

“Mmmmm” I murmured.

It took almost two whole days because the roots had spread all the way under the shore and down to the lake. Some were ten to fifteen feet long when I got them up. I collected them all in a big pile on the shore, reaching out like the arms of a dead octopus washed up on the shore.

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