Critical Thinking in the Wild

Matthew Crawford wrote a book that I love: Shop Class for Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. In the spirit of this book, I wrote a post outlining a home improvement project I completed, which I conceptually applied to thinking about course design. The ideas and challenges embedded within works like Crawford’s can be quite complex, but there is a simplicity, elegance rather, to the various ways we approach intellectual work that moves beyond mere accomplishment; they speak to who we are are as human beings, as reasoning begins. Following Matthew’s lead, once again, I am going to blog on my most recent challenge: felling a 120+ foot oak.


(top 1/2 of the tree)

This magnificent tree died this last spring. Since then it has been dropping limbs on the forest floor, that, if left uncollected, would return its nutrient rich fiber to the ground from which it drew life for over a hundred years.

It hurt me to see it die. Where fresh young leaves would have covered it in a blanket of photosynthesizing magic were mere memories of what once was. By summer, the limbs were bare; far before the first cool winds of fall and the tell tale yellows and reds that draw millions of people each year to the vistas of East Coast hardwood forests. This old tree had a life far older than mine, and I was sad to see it end; yet, part of me rejoiced in the confidence that it will warm my home next winter.

I wish I could write a tribute to its magnificence that rivals that of Aldo Leopold’s essay “Good Oak” in his famous Sand County Almanac. I’ve read it numerous times, and it always brings me to tears. I’m not that writer, but I celebrate and respect the oak nonetheless. My purpose here, rather, is to follow Crawford’s lead. I wish to highlight the thinking, the critical thinking, that helped me bring this tree down to its current resting place.


I had not thought to write about this event until numerous colleagues prompted me to do so. I’ve felled numerous trees (all had died). It is a regular part of my life living in a sort of pseudo-back to the land ethic. Heating our old early 20th century farm home with a woodstove is but one example. I mention this only to emphasize that I want my children to intimately understand the physical, intellectual and emotional investment it takes to make heat and create comfort.

I wish to outline the thinking (cognitive considerations) involved in this event knowing that I currently lack the eloquence to capture its emotional significance. This is the largest tree I have dropped. I have felled trees just as tall and one that was taller, but this one was the largest considering its height and bulk.

Critical Thinking Lesson: Know your context and clarify your considerations. As one can see in the above picture, I had a few challenges. First and foremost I had to drop the tree in such a way to avoid the power/phone post that is just inside my property line. Secondly, I had to bring the tree down in one piece. This necessity was more a factor of cost and tools than of know-how. I did not have the funds to pay a tree service to bring this ancient down in pieces. Hence my first criterion: Bring the tree down with as little financial cost as possible.

Another consideration (and sub-criterion) was to do so while minimizing damage to living trees, and my neighbor’s property. The power/phone post was a major consideration, but minimizing forest damage was much more significant. The forest on my property and the neighboring property is dense. When one tree falls it often creates a domino effect that, in this case, would have damaged my neighbors property. Moreover, the tree had a natural lean that favored its fall toward that of many other healthy trees and my neighbor. An uncontrolled fall = killing healthy trees and increased costs due to property damage. To summarize my additional contextual considerations:

Considerations and Challenges:

  • 20″ chain saw, but 35″ tree diameter
  • unknown cause of tree death (its core could be rotten)
  • top heavy
  • natural opposite lean
  • one man operation
  • electrical post
  • avoid raccoon den
  • minimize impact to healthy trees

Positive factors:

  • no wind
  • experience
  • sufficient tools (debatable)
  • good drop location


  • position burl for easy access
  • more convenient access for hauling wood out of forest

Critical Thinking Lesson: Take action to properly address / manage considerations.

Strategic and mindful action helps us not only prepare our actions, it helps us self-regulate and manage our assumptions and expectations. We must organize, we must strategize, we must monitor, and we must assess. What are my expected outcomes given the course of action? Is this course desirable? What are realistic alternatives? Is this the best choice and how do I know? How will I learn from these decisions to guide future action? These are a few of the major precautions and preparations I took to maximize the probability for a successful drop.


  • Well prepared tools (sharp chainsaw, cleared fall zone)
  • Helmet for unpredictable falling limbs
  • Frequent, but short breaks for rehydration and context assessment
  • I informed others of my plans and timeline for checking in

I’ll spare the reader the detailed summary of the entire experience. Instead, I want to highlight the intellectual (critical thinking) considerations. Given the above challenges, desires and preparations, the real beauty addresses two categories. The first is that of the physical. The second is that of the technical.

Physical: This is physically tough and exhausting work. Despite what one may assume, using a chainsaw requires heavy lifting, strategic pressure, assessment of the wood and environment, and continuous mental attention. Moreover, the chainsaw is but one of my tools. I had to use an axe and a maul to remove material and drive wedges. I place mental factors within the physical category because when one lapses so does the other. In other words, they are intimately connected. In work like this the connection is very real. For example, once physical exhaustion sets in one begins to take things for granted. Dehydration can lead to lapses in judgment, unclear thinking, and neglecting procedures (Tomporowski, 2003; Ya et al, 1997). I have learned (the hard way) to pay acute attention to my physical status so that I don’t allow my mind to press my body to do things that it is too exhausted to do. My mind might say “One more swing of the axe!” but my body may not be ready resulting in a missed strike. I have come very close to breaking my leg with such lapses in judgment. It is also very easy to get caught up in a rhythm that pushes cognitive checks  or cautions aside. Consequently, one might fail to stop and check if any limbs might be in danger of falling on one’s head. Mind and body: a balance of necessity in this case.

Technical: Well, there is a lot to consider. The saw is important. Positioning the wedges on the back-cut is very important. These are typical considerations, but I want to discuss those unique to this case. In the picture below is a power/phone line tower; I had to miss it. Doing so was a bit of strategy and hope mixed into one.



I started by making an unconventional wedge cut. I left material on one side of the wedge cut. I’ve done this with smaller trees and when coupled with strategic saw work and wedge placement the tree will actually rotate during the fall. I should say “might actually rotate” because I really don’t know if it has much of an affect alone, but when combined with the other factors it has worked for me many times. The challenge, concern really, is that I had never attempted such a maneuver with this large of a tree.

Why did I want it to rotate during the fall? Two reasons, First, I had to miss the power/phone tower. Second, I wanted the burl (pictured in first photo) to be positioned on the top side of the tree instead of buried beneath it. Fortunately, (second picture from top of post) it worked.

In this case, all my goals and challenges were met.  The intellectual work that went into this project, I believe, mirrors some of the best work I have done in academia. Actions taken to manage my expectations, emotions, and ego had to be explicated and strategically confronted. Assessing the context before and during involved mapping the conditions: physical, emotional and technical. Ultimately, I put my faith in the quality of my preparation and reasoning to maximize the probability for success. In this type of work, as with complex work dealing with people, the outcome cannot be determined with 100% accuracy. So, it’s about being strategic, mindful and prepared. That is a decent recipe for maximizing success.

So, for my friends at the California Conservation Corps and those who’s work takes tangible forms, I applaud those times where critical thinking is exemplified. Now….the real work begins to get it from forest to fire.