Suddenly he came across a very old, gnarled giant of a tree with an owl sitting on a nest in its branches. "Hello owl", he said. "Hello to yoooou toooo." said the owl and they smiled at each other.
"This tree doesn't look very well", said the woodsman.
"No, indeed. It's been ailing for quite a while" said the owl.
"Yes, I can see where disease has come into its limbs and has weakened them. This isn't good, owl."
"You're not wrong," said the owl.
There was an easy silence as the woodsman thought a little. Eventually he put his axe down on the ground and stretched his arms to waken the muscles. "You know, I think I could probably sort this tree out," said the woodsman.
"Hang on," said the owl quickly, "Sort it out how?"
"Well, it's simple see. This disease needs to be cut out of the tree if the tree's going to get better. And I reckon I'm just the man for the job - I can see where the disease is and I'll just lop off the bad bits."
"Whooooooaaa boy," said the owl. "Back up a little. The tree might be sick, sure. But that doesn't mean you're the man to cure it. I'm not sure that this tree needs the tender ministrations of a sharp blade at all. In fact, I reckon that's the last thing it needs."
"Well this tree was doing pretty well until woodsmen started messing with it a few years back. Giving it a little prune here and there - `for its own good' of course. One guy even tried the same trick you're talking about - cutting out this nasty disease with his axe. A fat lot of good that did - this tree hasn't ever properly recovered from that operation - the disease just got a whole lot worse. But at least we're surviving, and at least I've still got a nest for my babies."
"Well owl, that's as may be. You've clearly come across some bad woodsmen. But I'm different from that - I know what I'm doing. I know trees and I know this tree - I can fix it. I know I can."
"Thank you kindly for the offer," said the owl, "but we'll be just fine without your help. You go along now mister and good day to yoooouu."
The woodsman grimaced. "Owly, I've heard your comments but, with respect, I think you're wrong. And I'm going to prove it."
With that, he picked up his axe and walked purposefully to the tree. As the owl watched in consternation he examined a branch for sign of disease and then picked his mark and started chopping. In just a couple of minutes the branch was half cut through and soon, with a big creaking noise, it started splintering and dropping to the ground. A couple more hearty blows and the branch and tree were split asunder for ever.
"Now would you look at that!" said the woodsman. "This tree is going to be a whole lot healthier now. That branch was riddled with disease - if I'd just left it be the whole tree would have been brought down."
This time the owl didn't respond. She was flapping her wings in agitation and muttering soothing noises to her babies. The sound of chopping had aroused a chorus of frightened cries from the youngsters hiding unseen under their mother's soft belly.
The woodsman turned to the tree again and began examining the next branch. Finding evidence of more disease he started chopping away. He was confident that, with a few minutes work, this tree would be entirely freed of disease and the owl would be proven wrong.
Somehow though, it didn't work out that way. As he finished cutting off each branch he would look up and immediately spot more disease on the remaining branches. A few minutes quickly turned into a few hours of hard work.
He was so focussed on the task at hand that he barely noticed the owl getting more and more frantic. She alternated between whispering gently to her babies and trying desparately to quell her rising panic. Although it distressed her babies even more, she started to squawk wildly to try and attract the attention of any passing animals that might be able to help. But either they didn't hear her, or they were doing their best to stay out of harm's way, for no one came to her help.
Suddenly the owl launched herself from her nest and swooped down savagely on the head of the woodsman.
"Hey, what are you playing at?" he asked angrily. She'd taken him by surprise - he'd forgotten about her altogether, and she'd scratched his scalp.
"You're cutting my branch!" she screeched hysterically. "My babies are in a nest on that branch!"
She was right, he hadn't even realised. What's more it was the last branch left. As he looked around at his work, he realised that he'd chopped down all but a fraction of the once mighty tree. The main trunk still stood, and one long branch which supported the owl's nest.
"Why, you're right, owly. I see you're right." And he put down his axe and paused to wipe the sweat from his brow - cutting this tree had really taken it out of him. The owl flew back to her nest in relief. She'd stopped him just in time - she turned her attention to her crying babies - "It's all right now. Don't worry, Mummy's here..."
But suddenly she felt a shudder run through the nest. She looked up and saw the woodsman was cutting the branch. "Twaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrkkkkkkkk" she screeched in wild panic. "What are you doing? My babies!"
The woodsman didn't look up from his work. But between blows he gasped out a few sentences. "Owly, I don't expect you to understand.... But if I leave this branch all my work will be for nothing.... And this tree will still be here, diseased and uncured.... This branch is harbouring a disease that will kill this tree and it's my duty to cut it out..."
But the owl wasn' t listening. She was flapping frantically, trying vainly to protect her babies from the shudders running through the nest. Her mind whirred in panic but there was nothing she could do. She could feel the branch weakening with every brow. Oh God, oh God. Suddenly the branch collapsed a little. The whole nest dropped with it and she felt her stomach in her throat. Her babies were thrown around in the nest; their feeble cries were filled with terror. It would take just one more blow, she knew, and the branch would fall. As she watched the woodsman pull back his arm, she leaned down and gently picked up one of her babies in her mouth. As the axe hit the branch, she spread her wings and took flight.
As she beat her powerful wings she heard the branch hit the ground. Her heart jerked in her chest and a burning sadness spread through her whole body. But she flew on, her baby in her mouth - the only baby left - whom she had to save. The forest was wide and there were many trees but who would have her? She had only one nest and it was gone now. There were hard days and nights ahead, this much she knew.
The woodsman stood by the remaining tree trunk. The great tree which had stood for many years was now little more than a stump in the ground. Great branches lay strewn around on the ground - though diseased they were still great solid pieces of wood. This had been a great labour. He was tired now and it was time to go home and rest.
* * * * *
The next day the woodsman returned to the tree stump. This time he travelled on a cart that was pulled by two weary looking horses. He tethered the horses in the shade of a nearby tree and picked the axe out of the cart. He spent the rest of the day cutting the branches of the tree into logs and loading them onto the cart. It was hard graft and by the end of the day his hands were full of splinters.
Once the axe slipped and came mighty close to cutting off his foot. But it missed and the scare seemed to renew his focus. He chopped twice as hard after that and the tree was soon completely carved up and loaded onto the cart. As darkness fell he climbed on the cart and clicked the horses into a walk. It was beautifully cool now after the sweat of hard work in the heat of the day.
As he pulled out of the clearing a distant bird call sounded through the forest. It was an owl, he thought. The call sounded repeatedly as he left the clearing where the tree had once stood - it was a strange call. Oddly strident and clear, but full of a deep emotion that he could not quite name. What was that bird screeching for, he wondered? He'd forgotten all about the owl that had lived in the tree, so he had no inkling of the sadness that filled that call.
When he got back to his house, he greeted his wife with a kiss. "The man from the timber company came by earlier," she said. "He was keen to speak with you."
"Yes, I'll bet he was. Come and see this." He led her outside and showed her the cart full of logs. "Good solid logs these," he said. "And rare too. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw this tree yesterday."
"Why, this is wonderful, " said his wife. " But there are strange markings on its bark. Has it got some kind of disease?"
"Oh, don't worry about that. This is good timber, that's all that matters. We're going to get a mighty good price - the timber company are going to love this. We're set, baby, we're set!"
He kissed her and they went inside. It had been a long couple of days.