Clair McFarland: Shinnying Through Ugliness With A Hacksaw

Clair McFarland writes: "One dead elm branch swoops out, down and back through the other live branches – like a high wave from the river Styx. It has to go, and I’ve got to chop it off."

Clair McFarland

May 05, 20244 min read

Clair headshot 12 31 22
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

That elm tree has been driving me crazy but there’s nothing I can do for it.

Its leaves budded out last week into little lime florets; it stretches its urchin arms in front of my ugly woodshed, which the mail lady politely pretends she can’t see through the elm tree.

But one dead branch swoops out, down and back through the other live branches – like a high wave from the river Styx. It has to go, and I’ve got to chop it off.

Trimming trees is my sweet compulsion. Every spring I like to sling the hacksaw over my shoulder and shinny up a tree barefoot for some cheerful surgery. I inhale the sawdust. I exhale stressors. It’s like, totally earthen and stuff, man.

I have avoided the elm tree because its dead branch begins five bookcases of distance above the ground (I’m not a spatial thinker) and frightens me. I don’t have a ladder that tall. I don’t have nerves of steel.

Saturday I decided to give it a shot. What’s the worst that could happen – I could fall hurtling to my death, hit every branch on the way down and watch the hacksaw plummet onto my throat?

Oh, yeah. That.

Barefoot, I climbed. I looked up. The sun tilted at my eyeballs.

I grabbed the bottom curve of the dead branch – a tangled mass thicker than a shag curtain – and gave it a good shake. My eyes followed its reedy perspectives to its high source.  

An idea hit me, along with some bark bits.

What if I could climb the dead branch, to where the dead branch starts?

I shook my head – half to fling off any creeping ticks, half to tell myself no.

You don’t rid the world of some corrupt growth by climbing that corrupt growth.

Maybe I could climb the main trunk, I thought. I plastered my body to it, squeezed my calves against it and started the climb.

Earlier in this column I used the verb “shinny,” but the truth is, mothers of four don’t shinny. The authorities revoke our shinny licenses after the second kid.

I scooted. I scraped my cheek on the bark. When I did look up again, I didn’t feel any closer to the origin of death’s branch than when I started the climb.

Something walked on me.

“Charley Pride, get down,” said I, to my barn cat.

But he did not get down. He walked across my shoulders and bonked my face with his forehead, purring.

“Fsht!” I said.

That made Charley Pride really want to smell my breath.

“Fssht-fssht!” I said.

The cat slunk to the next branch over. The dead reeds rattled.

Maybe (I thought with trembling reason) it’s OK to have some dead ugly wave tangled up in all that’s good and alive. Maybe it gives the beauty character; lends the woodshed gothic mystery; forms a buffer against Wyoming’s hurricane-force winds.

Cupcakes are better if they contain a little fury, like whiskey or cayenne pepper. People are better if they don’t consider themselves flawless. And oddly, I always wake up rested after dreaming I’ve gone back to high school with no teeth or eyebrows.

I don’t know why that is. It just is.

“All right, River Styx,” I said to the ugly branch. “You get to live – er – you get to persist another day.”

And I scooted backward down the tree, careful not to hacksaw my cat.  

Clair McFarland can be reached at

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter