At age 79, woodcutter strong as oak

Activist: Duncan Murphy lives a nomadic life, trimming trees to finance his support of pacifist causes.

November 03, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The whine and chatter of the chainsaw marks the progress of that wayfaring pacifist woodcutter, 79-year-old Duncan Murphy, through the tangled little urban forest that has grown over old St. Peter's Cemetery.

The heart of West Baltimore -- the cemetery's just south of North Avenue off Bentalou Street -- seems an unlikely place to find a professional woodsman, but Murphy's visiting his old friends, Philip Berrigan and Liz McAlister, and the Jonah House Catholic anti-war, anti-nuke community.

In exchange for clearing trees and underbrush and caring for the cemetery, they live in a fine frame house they built. They've reclaimed about a third of the 23-acre cemetery where 12,000 or so parishioners from St. Peter the Apostle Church in southwest Baltimore are buried. In fact, far more parishioners reside there these days than in the old neighborhood.

Murphy drove up about two weeks ago in his battered 1978 Ford van and volunteered to clear out some of the dead wood and fallen trees left over from Hurricane Floyd and other storms.

"I knew the Berrigans from years back," he says. "And I've been active with some of the same issues."

"I never went to jail with them. Well, let's see " He thinks a moment. "No. I've been to jail with other groups. I have such admiration for the way in which they've never given up."

He hasn't given up much himself. He served nearly four years overseas as a conscientious objector ambulance driver in World War II. He's fasted for weeks on the Capitol steps in Washington, narrowly escaped injury when a train struck a protester in a demonstration at a naval arms depot in California, and he's headed for Georgia soon to picket at Fort Benning's School of the Americas.

And he figures he's done tree work in nearly every state, too. He's a travelin' man.

"I've had a lot of experience in topping and pruning and taking down trees," he says. But he disclaims any grand expertise as a forester.

"I can pretty much take down any tree wherever it is," he says. "Whether it's between the houses, or whatever. But as far as treating diseases and so on, I'm ignorant.

"Yeah, I take 'em down. But I don't use heavy equipment. I take 'em down in sections. Very carefully. Most of the time I work alone."

Now approaching 80 (next June), he tramps through the cemetery at a pace that leaves younger folks breathless. Forlorn tombstones and monuments appear out of the weeds and underbrush like lost and scattered memories from a foggy dream. The cemetery dates from before the Civil War. Early on, St. Peter's served the large Irish Catholic immigrant community. Lots of Murphys are buried here.

But Duncan Murphy's quite lively, lean and agile and energetic as a squirrel. He's compact, taut and wiry, a bit gnarled, but honest and true as a seasoned oak burl. His hair's gray and a little thin. He wears a mustache neatly trimmed, and his face has the good lines you earn during a life of useful work.

"It's a means of livelihood," he says of his woodcutting. "I don't work at it all the time. But I can get enough in a couple days to last me for a month. And I'm only charging a quarter of what most tree companies will charge."

He's not charging Jonah House or the Archdiocese of Baltimore anything.

"I don't have expensive trucks. I don't have assistants. It's worked out pretty good. Of course, I don't have anything saved. I do volunteer work until the money runs out. Then I go out and earn some more and come back."

And he still does the climbing it takes to do the job.

"I was climbing last week," he says. "There was a tree uprooted, up at a place called Stonehenge, in New Hampshire."

Megaliths at Mystery Hill, the New Hampshire site near Salem, appear to be aligned astronomically, like those at Stonehenge in England. Murphy cleared some of the sight lines that point to the stars.

"I did some climbing there," he says. "Probably 40 feet or so. You have to do some climbing to get up to where you want to work."

He's worked 80 feet up in eucalyptus trees in California.

"I've topped some trees 40 feet over my head. You'd probably be up 50 feet."

Which is a bit tricky.

"You don't want it falling the wrong way."

He laughs and tells the old joke: "Oh, it isn't the height so much as that sudden stop at the end of the fall.

"It isn't the height," he insists. "It's how secure you are. You can get killed from 10 feet up. That saw can kill you on the ground. You just got to be careful."

Just a few months ago his chainsaw kicked back and stopped about an inch from his nose, not to mention his skull.

He's fallen now and again. He'll never forget the time he was 30 feet up a tree and the day was ending.

"I wanted to finish the job. Quite often I'll take a chain. This time I took a belt, rope. And I was up, as I say, 30 feet, was hooked in, making this cut. When all of a sudden I felt myself falling over backward. I'd cut right through my rope."

He chortles. He's got a self-deprecatory sense of humor.

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