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The pen and the ax

Bicycling to a friend's house the other day to cut down a cherry tree for her , I was reminded not of the father of our country but of myself at college. I had been on the saddle when she called. Not wishing to miss the afternoon's run, I had handkerchiefed a crosscut saw to my handlebars and set forth -- a woodsman on wheels. The tree had to come down. We had already accepted that. There were dogwoods involved, azaleas too long in the shade, and I would have the wood for my stove.

When I was in college, I used to peddle out into the surrounding countryside to keep myself from falling asleep in the library. One day I saw in someone's yard a tree that had been reduced to logs. On an inspiration, I stopped and asked the owner if I might be allowed to split them up for him. I was enamored of wood -- yearned for the simplicity of the ax (after so much hairsplitting). This was my opportunity. My challenge. My reward. Of course, he thought I was mad. But he was not so mad himself as to refuse me. I spent several glorious afternoons in his yard. (He found more wood.) And we divided the spoils.

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Today's cherry tree was about thirty feet tall and branched out into two trunks, a head's length off the ground. I propped up a ladder and cut the lower branches. My friend began dragging them to the road. We worked in tandem, reducing the tree, limb by limb, to logs. The sunlight began to break through. The young dogwoods moved imperceptibly toward the pool of light. Azaleas blinked. Ferns unfurled.

As a college professor, I am paid to ruminate. My time on the bicycle is working time. So is my time with the saw. The stuff of ideas is the stuff of life. And life is partly wood. When I was in college, I had no idea what I was preparing myself for (though a good idea of what I wasn't). I know now it was for this. But yield who will to their separation My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight.

This is the conclusion of Robert Frost's ''Two Tramps in Mudtime.'' The narrator is ''loosing his soul . . . on the unimportant wood,'' splitting logs and enjoying it. The Cyclops is a giant with one huge eye in the middle of his forehead, and he glares out on life as if to pierce it with a weapon. We are two-sided man. And what we long for is a proper balance. The pen and the ax. My needs and those of others, my joys and theirs.

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