At age 79, woodcutter strong as oak; Activist: Duncan Murphy lives a nomadic life, trimming trees to finance his support of pacifist causes.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"I bounced 15 feet down off a roof and 15 foot down from there into a bush. I injured my knee, that's all. Not badly.

"Just careless," he says. "You can't afford to be careless. Should've known better."

He figures not too many woodsmen are climbing into the upper branches of 80-foot trees in their 80th year. Last year a West Coast magazine counted oldsters still in the tree-cutting business.

"Most were in their 60s, a few in the 70s and one was 84. But he was not doing quite as much work as I still do. So I don't know if I'll be doing this at 84 or not. Comes in handy when I need cash.

"Tree work has an advantage," he says. "Most anywhere you go you're going to find some trees that need attention. So it's been pretty handy for my lifestyle."

He's been a woodcutter 30 years or so. "Since the '60s, anyway," he says.

He's been a pacifist since he was about 7.

"I was looking through a book that had photographs of trench warfare of the First World War, and at that time it made no sense at all," he recalls. "I think kids have better sensitivity than adults sometimes. Here's craziness, why? For what? What do you do that for?

"That stuck with me. And now I'm more convinced than ever after having seen the lies and the horrors and realizing wars are not grand patriotic things for the people. It's not the way to solve things."

In an odd way his pacifism led him to his woodcutting. After World War II, spiritually searching veterans such as he was were attracted to the Shiloh Community, a Pentecostal and apostolic group led by Eugene Crosby Monroe, a naval architect whose "spiritual experiences" led him to settle his family in Western New York.

"I was in the community 20 years, and we baked goods to sell and, we delivered 'em around Chautauqua County and a lot of the farmers in that area had orchards. In fact, some of the best orchards in the world. But over the years they were just not getting enough for their apples, and they just let them go.

"And I told them if they let us have the apples, I'd prune the trees. So they thought that was a good deal. When I left the community I took my chainsaw along, and began to work on my own."

During World War II, he had served with an American Field Service ambulance unit posted to North Africa in February 1942. Attached to the British Eighth Army, they faced Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps in the desert.

As it turned out, he would see more bloody combat as a conscientious objector than many, many infantrymen.

His ambulance unit served with Allied and U.S. forces through North Africa and Italy and France and into Germany, where his war wore down as horrifically as it had begun.

Murphy was with the British troops who liberated Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp where Anne Frank died.

"When they first went in, there were something like 10,000 dead bodies all over the ground. Starved dead bodies. Then there were these numerous sheds. The victims inside were as close together as the fingers on your hand, the dead and the dying. It was a horrible, horrible thing."

"Those are things that I never forgot, and they affected the rest of my life. I figured I'd come back and do my best to see these things never happened again."

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