A month ago I ran an extension cord across the backyard, plugged in my mini-wood-chipper, dragged downed limbs and small dead trees into a pile, stood in a sunny spot, and fed branches one at a time into the hopper, where a whirling blade chipped, shaved, bit, and spit the cedar, rhododendron, and maple into a heap of garden muesli.
Often when gardening or cleaning house, I’ll listen to a book on my IPod, trying to squeeze literature into my chores. The chipper was loud and I didn’t want to scavenge for my noise-cancelling headphones. My husband was in California, so it was, “me and my machine for the rest of the morning, the rest of the afternoon,” and for the next few days, but not for the rest of my life. Like James Taylor’s Millworker, I found that running the chipper wasn’t easy or hard. It also wasn’t boring. I was getting familiar with it—straight branches, well dried, an inch thick buzzed through easily. Berry canes and green leaves on the ends of branches caught in the blade, the motor conked out, and I’d disassemble the feeder, clean it out, start over. Rhododendrons were tricky, too, their branches multiplied and spread wide, and I’d squeeze the sticks together, feeding with pressure, just enough to hear the blade whine, otherwise the ends would tumble around the hopper like last kernels of un-popped corn.
It was rewarding, making a dent in the nursery graveyard where dead trees were pitched with, I believe, good intentions. I didn’t begrudge Mr. Nunamaker not getting around to garden cleanup. He was over ninety when he moved out and half an acre is work, even with ski poles strategically placed around the yard to help balance on the hillside.
Warmed by the sun, surrounded by living cedars and pine, grinding deceased trees, I developed a rhythm as I lifted a branch, fed it the machine, listened for the cadence of the shredding wheel, repeated and repeated the motions until there was nothing else in the world. Just me and my machine–––a loop of action and energy. I lost track of time and place. I wasn’t thinking about how many branches were left in my pile, and when I’d have to drag more over. I wasn’t thinking about lunch or composing a mental grocery list. I was simply and fully in the present moment.
I don’t know how long I was in that frame of non-mind. I only recognized I’d been it when my ego drifted back into consciousness, and I thought, “Wow, I was really in the zone.” As soon as I thought it, I was no longer there. Thoughts came crashing back like breakers on a beach. Awareness wouldn’t stop. I thought how cool my Zen moment was, how it felt like prayer or writing or making love when everything aligns to transport. I thought this was how my husband must feel when wrapped up in construction projects and creative visioning, forgetting meals or quitting time. I thought I should blog about the spiritual side of home improvement.
I was distracted, thinking how great my moment of Zen woodchipping had been, that I wrenched my back while yanking at tangled branches. My inattention sidelined me for weeks, curtailing my intentions as I hobbled around the house, leaving chipping, home improvement, and blogging for later, and with new resolve to pay more attention to my labors and less to my mental chatter.