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Love, tree, chainsaw: A story of death and creation in a backyard


Thirty years ago, Jennifer Ruse bought a sculpture of a mushroom someone had made with a chainsaw.

She loved that mushroom and figured she could carve her own.

“I can do that,” she would say each day as she passed by her mushroom.

But she didn’t until 2018 when she was between jobs and bored.

Her husband heard her repeat the well-worn brag, and he told her, “Go out and get my saw, and carve a mushroom.”

She didn’t like his saw, so she went to Farm & Fleet and bought her own Husqvarna. A hobby grew into a career.

Ruse had spent the previous 15 years managing a home health agency from a basement office. She was 51 when she carved her first mushroom.

Anthony Wahl 

Chainsaw artist Jennifer Ruse of Roadside Saw Works carves away pieces of an old silver maple tree stump as she works Wednesday to create sculptural mushrooms and flowers of what will become a fairy rain garden. Property owner Susan Shotliff had the tree removed a few weeks ago because large branches were continually breaking off when it stormed.

“If I would’ve done it earlier, I probably would’ve been doing it my whole life,” She said. “But I didn’t. I wasted my life away in an office chair. I could’ve been outside.”

People often ask for eagles or bears, Ruse said, but after talking to the owner of her latest stump, she is carving something new: a fairy rain garden.

The top will feature a big mushroom, flowers, leaves and grooves that will channel rainfall down to a birdbath-sized pool next to a fairy-sized house.

Homeowner Sue Shotliff had cherished the big silver maple that hung over the backyard and alley behind 121 Jefferson Ave., where she has lived for the past 20 years.

But the tree was dying, Shotliff said. Every windstorm would tear limbs from it. She feared damage to her neighbor’s garage.

“I know things can’t live forever. It kind of broke my heart to know that the tree had to come down,” she said.

Workers took most of the tree down, leaving the massive lower trunk, about 12 feet high and 12 feet around.

As Shotliff contemplated taking down the tree, she decided to memorialize it.

She found Ruse’s Roadside Saw Works Facebook page last year.

An elementary school art teacher, Shotliff is used to coming up with whimsical ideas for art projects. She suggested fairy houses, and Ruse soon sketched her concept.

Anthony Wahl 

Chainsaw artist Jennifer Ruse of Roadside Saw Works carves away pieces of an old silver maple tree stump as she works Wednesday to create sculptural mushrooms and flowers of what will become a fairy rain garden. Property owner Susan Shotliff had the tree removed a few weeks ago because large branches were continually breaking off when it stormed.

“It’s a real gift to be able to take a big block of something and then remove stuff rather than just building it out of parts and pieces,” Shotliff said. “I think she’s really got a gift.”

Ruse has no formal art training. She first carved mushrooms. Then a friend asked her to do a bear cub.

“I’ll try,” she replied. And she did it.

People would stop by her home in Happy Hollow and ask to buy her mushrooms. Then a neighbor who is a blacksmith offered to show her pieces at the Beloit Farmers Market.

“It just ballooned from there,” she said.

“When COVID hit, I was no longer at the market, so I took up stumps in people’s yards. My tallest one is 20 foot. That was my first time ever on scaffolding.”

She couldn’t tell you exactly how long the carvings will last: “It all depends on the stump and the kind of wood. Every carving is different. Every piece of wood is different. This’ll last their lifetime. We’ll treat it with a deck sealer, so it’ll repel water, and it won’t be shiny, so it won’t crack like varnish would. I suggest my clients do that once a season if not twice.”

Ruse says some people are surprised that a woman would take up chainsaw art. It’s something that gets her creative juices flowing, like singing or writing her family history.

“Sawdust,” she likes to say, “is my glitter.”

Anthony Wahl 

This drawing is the inspiration for chainsaw artist Jennifer Ruse’s work on an old silver maple tree stump owned by Susan Shotliff.

Biden to pull US troops from Afghanistan, end 'forever war'


President Joe Biden said Wednesday he will withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from the “forever war” in Afghanistan, declaring that the Sept. 11 terror attacks of 20 years ago cannot justify American forces still dying in the nation’s longest war.

His plan is to pull out all American forces—numbering 2,500 now—by this Sept. 11, the anniversary of the attacks that were coordinated from Afghanistan. Soon after Biden made his announcement, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels said the alliance had agreed to withdraw its roughly 7,000 forces from Afghanistan, matching Biden’s decision to begin a final pullout by May 1.

The U.S. cannot continue to pour resources into an intractable war and expect different results, Biden said.

The drawdown would begin rather than conclude by May 1, which has been the deadline for full withdrawal under a peace agreement the Trump administration reached with the Taliban last year.

“It is time to end America’s longest war,” Biden said, but he added that the U.S. will “not conduct a hasty rush to the exit.”

“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal expecting a different result,” said Biden, who delivered his address from the White House Treaty Room, the same location where President George W. Bush announced the start of the war. “I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”

Biden’s announcement, which he followed with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, marks perhaps the most significant foreign policy decision in the early going of his presidency.

He has long been skeptical about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was a lonely voice in the administration who advised the 44th president to tilt toward a smaller counterterrorism role in the country while military advisers were urging a troop buildup to counter Taliban gains. Biden has also made clear he wants to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy to face bigger challenges posed by China and Russia.

Withdrawing all U.S. troops comes with clear risks. It could boost the Taliban’s effort to claw back power and undo gains toward democracy and women’s rights made over the past two decades. It also opens Biden to criticism, mostly Republicans and some Democrats, even though former President Donald Trump had also wanted a full withdrawal.

“This administration has decided to abandon U.S. efforts in Afghanistan which have helped keep radical Islamic terrorism in check,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said. “And bizarrely, they have decided to do so by Sept. 11.”

While Biden’s decision keeps U.S. forces in Afghanistan four months longer than initially planned, it sets a firm end to two decades of war that killed more than 2,200 U.S. troops, wounded 20,000 and cost as much as $1 trillion.

Biden spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday ahead of his speech. The White House said in a statement that Biden told Ghani the United States would continue to support the Afghan people through development, humanitarian and security assistance.

“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan respects the U.S. decision, and we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition,” Ghani said in a Twitter posting.

Biden spoke, too, with former President Bush ahead of announcing his decision. He also spoke with allies, military leaders, lawmakers and Vice President Kamala Harris to help make his decision, according to the White House. Bush, through his spokesman, declined to comment about his conversation with Biden.

Biden emphasized that his administration will continue to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and assist international efforts to train the Afghan military.

He noted that the “forever war” has led to service members who weren’t even alive at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks serving, as well as young troops following in the steps of their mothers and fathers in deploying to Afghanistan.

“The war in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” Biden said.

Obama, who had hoped but ultimately failed to end the war during his time in office, said in a statement that he supported Biden’s decision, that “it is time to recognize that we have accomplished all that we can militarily, and that it’s time to bring our remaining troops home.”

Following his speech, Biden visited Arlington National Cemetery to honor those who died in recent American conflicts. After paying his respects, Biden told reporters it was “absolutely clear” to him that ending the war was the right decision. Biden, in his speech and during his visit to the hallowed cemetery, reflected on his own late son Beau Biden’s service. The president’s son, who died of cancer in 2015, had deployed to Iraq with the Delaware Army National Guard.

“I’m always amazed that generation after generation, women and men give their lives to this country,” Biden said. “It means I have trouble these days showing up to this cemetery and not thinking about my son.”

CIA Director William Burns acknowledged at a hearing Wednesday that America’s ability to contain the terrorist threat from Afghanistan has benefited from the military presence there, and that when that presence is withdrawn, “the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish.”

“That’s simply a fact,” Burns said. “It is also a fact, however, that after withdrawal, whenever that time comes, the CIA and all of our partners in the U.S. government will retain a suite of capabilities, some of it remaining in place, some of them that we will generate, that can help us to anticipate and contest any rebuilding effort.”

A senior administration official said the September withdrawal date was an absolute deadline that won’t be affected by security conditions in Afghanistan.

The long conflict has largely crippled al-Qaida and led to the death of Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks. But an American withdrawal also risks many of the gains made in democracy, women’s rights and governance, while ensuring that the Taliban, who provided al-Qaida’s haven, remain strong and in control of large swaths of the country.

As Biden announced his decision, his top national security aides—Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin—were consulting in Brussels to coordinate NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan with the planned pullout of American troops.

Stoltenberg, the NATO chief, said the alliance’s full withdrawal would be completed “in months” but did not mention the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“We went into Afghanistan together, we have adjusted our posture together and we are united in leaving together,” he said.

Obituaries and death notices for April 15, 2021

Brad S. Boeger

Alvin Earl Hammell

Margaret Rose (Buerer) “Suzy” or “Sue” Robson Johnson

Dr. Sara Ann Johnson

Debra L. “Deb” Krafjack

Rosemary Ludwig

Shane Jimmy Twerberg

Mark H. Wirkus

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Firefighter training key in rescue of 50 people from Janesville apartment fire


The Janesville Fire Department had used the building at 120 St. Lawrence Ave. to train firefighters just one day before an actual fire barreled through the complex.

Training in real structures is part of a regimen fire department officials said was key in saving dozens of lives when a fire started in the St. Lawrence Avenue building in the early-morning hours of March 28.

Fire Capt. Josh Uecker said the March 28 fire was the “most significant” call he has responded to in his 15-year career. It required several ladder rescues and sent firefighters crawling through pitch-dark rooms as they looked for people.

“This is the fire that you train for,” Uecker said.

Crews responded to the apartment complex at about 3:30 a.m. that Sunday and immediately found a woman hanging out a second-story window and needing help, Uecker said.

The fire had started on the second floor, making evacuation difficult for some people on the second and third floors, he said.

Battalion Chief Ron Bomkamp said the cause of the fire is still being investigated.

Firefighters sent a ladder to rescue the woman hanging out the window. Soon afterward, they found several more people hanging out windows around the building, Uecker said.

Firefighters’ first priority is to rescue any people they can immediately see or reach, Uecker said. There’s typically no time to talk to people from a ladder; firefighters just pull them out, set them down and keep moving, he said.

Meanwhile, other city workers help organize people and offer aid, Uecker said. City buses were used March 28 to keep apartment residents out of the cold.

Before fire crews arrived, Janesville police officers had begun ushering out people who were able to evacuate with little assistance, Uecker said. One officer returned to the building to retrieve a tenant’s medications and other items people needed to get through the night.

As firefighters pulled five people out of the building via ladders, crews from another Janesville fire station began combing through the second and third floors, looking for people who might be trapped.

Some areas of the building, especially on the second floor, were in total darkness. At times, firefighters crawled on their hands and knees while searching behind cribs, in bathtubs, anywhere a person could be hiding.

Search training drills are among the most important drills firefighters do each year, Uecker said.

Moving quickly under dangerous circumstances is important. Two or three fewer minutes of smoke inhalation can save a life, he said.

Bomkamp said 11 people were rescued that day. Among them were five people who were evacuated from the third floor and one woman who had difficulty walking who was escorted from the first floor.

“In 21 years, that is the most rescues I’ve seen,” he said.

No injuries were reported among the 50 tenants who made it out of the building in time. Two people were treated for smoke inhalation.

It took crews eight minutes and 15 seconds to rescue and evacuate all 50 people.

When asked what made the response so successful, Uecker said it all comes down to training.

“We train a lot for it, practice a lot,” he said.

In recent years, the Janesville Fire Department has updated its training so all battalions are trained the same way, Bomkamp said. That ensures consistency and a seamless transition when major events require assistance from multiple battalions or stations.

Crews also were “very fortunate” that there were no other calls when the fire started, which allowed for more manpower, Uecker said.

The fire was extinguished and all 39 apartment units—a total of 18,000 square feet—were searched within 30 minutes of firefighters’ arrival, Bomkamp said.

The three-story apartment building is made of steel, concrete and brick. Those sturdy materials made a difference in how much time firefighters had to evacuate people, Uecker said.

Buildings in Janesville vary widely in age and materials, which means first responders have to be familiar with the kinds of structures in the community, Bomkamp said.

A fire will act differently in a 100-year-old downtown building than it will in a 50-year-old west-side building or a brand-new home on the east side, Uecker said.

That’s why crews were at the 120 St. Lawrence Ave. building the day before for training.

Regular visits help firefighters get acquainted with local buildings. Then they know where they can park an engine, where they can enter the building and where obstacles might be, Uecker said.

“The building is our enemy,” he said.

He noted that crumbling buildings are more likely to kill someone than the fire itself.

The building at 120 St. Lawrence Ave. is currently not occupied. It will remain vacant until it meets code and safety requirements, said Tom Clippert, city building director.

The displaced tenants are being helped by insurance companies or the American Red Cross, Bomkamp said.

What can people do to prevent fires such as the one at 120 St. Lawrence Ave.? Uecker and Bomkamp agree that maintaining fire alarms is critical.

If a fire does start, Uecker said, people should always shut doors behind them to prevent smoke and flames from spreading.