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Garret Keizer

The Enigma of Anger

Reflections on a sometimes deadly sin

"Be not too hasty," said Imlac, "to trust, or to admire,
the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels,
but they live like men."
—Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

Only three limbs of a sugar maple tree, none thicker than my arm but each broad enough to shade a horse, lay in a sprinkling of sawdust by the side of the road. On the trunk above them, three pathetic stumps oozed sap. This was my tree, one of the beautiful ancient maples that line our rural Vermont property where it meets the road. Those trees had caught our eye even before my wife and I had seen the "For Sale" sign on what is now our home. I love to walk past those maples on afternoons when I finish work, and evenings before turning again to more work; I had especially longed to do so on that cloudy June day before unbuckling a briefcase full of final exams that would keep me up much of the night. Mine was a smug little joy, I realized even then, as much the pride of ownership as the appreciation of nature, but I didn't care. We want our joys to be harmless; we don't need them to be noble. But now even that small joy was cut short by the sight of those sawn-off limbs, enigmatic and almost insulting at my feet.

The town road crew had cut them off the tree; I was sure of that. The men had been grading that section of road in the afternoon just before I came home. I was less sure as to why they had cut them. The limbs had not hung out over the road. They had not been near any telephone or power lines. They had not been rotten or in danger of falling off. The only plausible reason I could imagine was that the road crew had cut off the limbs to make it easier to turn the grader, though there was an access to a hay field where they might have done the same thing less than a hundred feet away. Could they really have been so lazy?

But then, there didn't have to be a plausible reason, did there? Maybe one of the men had just felt like sawing off a few limbs—no different, really, from a kid in my classroom feeling in the ...

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