A few days ago I attended a funeral for a friend’s mother. It seems, in the last year or so, that death has declared open season on Baby Boomers and she was one of the many claimed by 2016.
On leaving the service I walked with an old friend from college days. We talked about our kids and I mentioned that my oldest was taking a gap year in Athens, establishing residency before enrolling in UGA, probably in the fall. I talked about how weird it was moving about that town after an absence of almost 25 years. A few things remained the same, recognizable relics, but much had changed and I had to acknowledge that much time had passed.
Lynda went to Auburn and said she hadn’t been back yet. “I really oughta go,” she said.
“It’ll force you to realize you’re not 25 anymore,” I said.
“But that’s how I feel,” she said. “Don’t you feel like you’re same as when you were in your 20’s?”
“Hell,” I said, “I still feel like I’m nine years old.”
Which leads me to today. Last night we had one of those rare Alabama occurrences, a snow storm. Really more of an icing, but nonetheless white stuff fell from the sky and stuck to the ground. Roads were, by Alabama standards, impassable and wiser folks stayed at home. Which meant I got an equally rare occurrence, a full Saturday at home without having to go in to work at the gym.
Nana found a new recipe for gluten-free biscuits (yes, we are those people) and had a batch coming out of the oven as I stumbled into the kitchen in search of morning coffee. I’m really enjoying the Yeti knockoff thermal mug I got for Christmas and, after a hearty breakfast of biscuits, bacon, and eggs, I set off, mug in hand, to follow Samantha and the girls as we walked the dogs through our new winter wonderland of a neighborhood.
On the way back I suggested that we check out Boo Radley’s house, my pet name for the property adjacent to ours that hasn’t had a tenant in the eight years we’ve lived here, or quite possibly the ten before that. Boo Radley was the creepy guy in an old run down house in To Kill a Mockingbird. The house that sits on this property is falling in on itself. Luckily, the landowner, while she has the property listed for sale, has a woefully inflated sense of the property’s value. Priced out of anybody’s sense of reasonable coupled with an uninhabitable structure insures quiet neighbors and a strong sense of the rural quality of our neighborhood.
At one time this was property was something. An old house, dating back from the thirties when this was a mining community, covered in cedar shake. The house belonged to the company doctor. I’ve been told power lines that served the machine gun nests placed on the hill to keep out unionists originated in that house. You can see the remains of what must have been a beautiful garden, a Japanese style gate graces the driveway, a lap pool fringed in an overgrown bamboo forest sits in the back, only half full due to our recent drought and choked with leaves. I’m convinced there’s a prehistoric turtle that lives at the bottom of that murk.
I often fantasize about this property. It’s five acres running alongside and behind my own. Five additional acres I could use to keep small livestock, more raised garden beds, and a wood lot. Mmmm, wood lot. Here is where we get to the nine year old.
I grew up in a family that originated from the Presbyterians of Scotland. Ever heard of the Protestant Work Ethic? Yeah, we wrote that. As a boy all I ever wanted was to be included with the men as they went out to do chores on my grandfather’s farm. The often necessary exclusion, I would have quickly become bored and in the way, made that prospect even more attractive, to the point, that now as an adult I find ways to make work in my spare time. Nine years old, remember?
I have a fireplace insert in the living room and when the winters get cold enough I use it to help heat at least half of our house. The economics probably don’t play out. I spend much more in my own labor and effort to cut, split, stack, schlep, and burn than I get in gas savings, but I get something else, too. I get enjoyment. The boy inside of me gets to relish in the strength and power of the work and I feel a visceral connection to the men who labored before me. I get to play.
I can only imagine what those men might think of what I do. Life was very different for them. My father and uncle, my grandfathers, my great grandfathers all experienced this kind of work in a very real, this-is-what-we-have-to-do kind of way. Even for a portion of my father’s and uncle’s lives firewood was a necessity. It heated the house and, during my grandfather’s childhoods, it cooked their food. I do it because I think it’s fun.
I wanted to scout out Boo Radley’s place and see what kind of future uses I could put it to. You know, when the landlady suddenly takes an altruistic turn and cedes me the property or there’s a convergence of her suddenly realizing her property’s true value and I finding myself suddenly flush with excess cash. Both quite unlikely, but the idea of having a woodlot I could manage and steward strangely excites me and I wanted to see what could be.
In truth, not much. Like I said, this area was once part of the Overton Mines and in the 30s was almost completely clear cut. After the mine closed it turned over to small residential farms. Older residents have told me they used a path behind my house to get to the river and that there was a small spring up there where they kept minnows and other live bait. At one time the current owner of Boo Radley’s place had horses and that hill was their main pasture.
Now, it’s a lot of scrub and brush, bumble around long enough and you’ll find the old fence posts, the wire fencing long trampled or rusted away.. Privet and wisteria run rampant. Some of the wisteria is as thick as my forearm. The trees on this hill are young, mostly pines with a few hardwoods, saplings mainly, scattered in. There’s a couple of tall pines, wide enough I can’t reach my arms around and an oak that might be 50 years old.
I did find a old red oak down several years lying in the leaves, still solid enough to serve as some well seasoned firewood. Just enough to send the nine year old scheming for a new adventure.
Just before Christmas I acquired a ten foot choker cable with two solid metal rings one on each end. Given the ice and snow I thought conditions would be just right to section the trunk into logs I could drag back to the truck. First I’d have a cut a trail, but how much fun would that be? (No, really. That’s not sarcasm.) The afternoon temperature hung in the low 20s and the ice crunched noisily underfoot. When would I get another chance like this?
I loaded my tools into the truck and backed down Boo Radley’s overgrown driveway, past the Japanese gate and as far back as I could go. Which was actually not very far. My 1976 Chevy stepside, while certainly the coolest truck on the block, is not much of a four wheeler and I quickly lost traction. I shut the engine off and said a silent prayer asking that the weight of the wood I hoped to collect would be sufficient enough to aid in getting me back out again.
I picked up my ax and belted on my hatchet and trudged my way through the snow and ice frosted bamboo. About a 150 yards from the truck lay my quarry. I had to walk past the collapsing garage, corrugated sheets of tin perched atop a structure of tar coated 4x4s. Back in the summer my friend and mentor Chip Conrad and I used this spot to shoot a promo video for Adex leverage clubs. The suburban decay we joked about had accelerated a good bit since then. There’s hardly enough left to stand under let alone use as a set. It’s just a pile of scrap metal and trash wood bits, remnants of someone else’s life now moved on.
Beyond the garage lay a scattered assortment of junk, an old metal work table, something I would have grabbed a long time ago if two of its metal legs hadn’t already rusted halfway away, a folding chair, a motor with a giant gear on it whose original purpose I can’t begin to fathom, hundreds of plastic pots, the kind landscapers use. Past this graveyard of useless items, the ground begins to slope upward. There’s a break for the powerline and then the woods begin again.
I found my way to my tree and began clearing the wisteria and privet that had grown up around it. My studies of ax mechanics and lore had certainly paid off. The edge on my hatchet was keen and I quickly cut through the scrub brush and vines. I still think the handle is a little too thick, my hands burn with fatigue after a dozen or so swings.
The hatchet is a Snow and Nealy that Samantha bought me for Christmas a few years back. I’ve come to realize it’s a really nice tool, despite my gripes about it’s handle. I used it to clear the small stuff and make room for the axe to clear the larger privet trunks.
I’ve been restoring a few different axes in the garage, even toying with carving my own handles. I have a single bit that belonged to my father, and a couple double bits that I’ve picked up over the years. None of these are ready for the woods. The first double bit, the first handle I carved myself, is actually going under a refurbish. I carved the handle from a hickory branch (later learning that’s not the preferred method, although I’ve also read contrarian views on this, so I guess it’s still open to debate.) but carved it way too thick. I thought a beefy guy needed a beefy handle and I kinda got lazy after having removed so much of the original wood already. This’ll work, right?
I’m now going back, under the tutelage of Dudley Cook’s The Ax Book: The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter, and shaving it down to a more reasonable size.
The axe I do have that’s suitable for the woods is a hand forged German model I picked up from some catalog. At first I thought it was a dud, but after learning that most axes straight from the factory need their cheeks thinned (the area just behind the cutting edge on either side of the blade) to cut well. After a little time with a bastard file (and the belt sander, I really gotta work on this patience thing) I’ve got a really nice axe. It cut deep with each swing and I made short work out of clearing my trail.
A short hike back to the truck to gas and oil up my chainsaw and I was ready to start working on the log. I almost hated to crank up the chainsaw. Until now my work had been quiet and peaceful with nothing more to break the silence than the bite of my blade, the crunch of my boots, or the labor of my breathing. At one point a Carolina Wren, winter fat and puffed up against the cold, hopped in front of me, unperturbed by the swing of my ax or the shudder of the sapling sized privet I was cutting.
As nice as the relative silence was this log was close to sixteen inches in diameter and more than I wanted to tackle with a bow saw. I relish a good crosscut saw, but until I can get one, I’ll settle for my Stihl. I cut the log into sections, roughly eight feet long, and slipped the choker cable under the first log and the smaller ring through the larger. As I walked away from the log the cable cinched down and grabbed hold. It slid fairly easily across the ground.
Walking backwards and rowing the cable toward my chest I made my way down to the powerline, across the small drainage ditch, past the suburban decay, through the bamboo forest and to the truck. One down, three to go.
The second log was heavier. Of course it was. I was getting closer to the base. This log was wider and more of it solid wood than punky rot. This was a little rougher going until I figured out that if I faced forward and threw the cable over my shoulder I could make better progress. Holding the ring by itself was a bit of a problem, but I stopped again at suburban decay and rooting through the debris found a 1×2 I could fashion into a crude handle. That lasted about 20 yards before I snagged on some of the bamboo and snapped the handle trying to pull free. From there I just used my hatchet handle (and found myself suddenly grateful for the extra thickness), careful to keep the leather sheath on and the blade pointed away from me.
It was about 4:30 when I got the choker cable around the final log and I began summoning the strength to get this one moving. Only not so much. This was the butt end of the tree and not at all unheavy. At it’s current length it was not going to budge and my light was fading fast.
I could cut the log again, shorten it to, say, four feet and attempt to pull that out, but I knew if I did I would only get one log to the truck before it became too dark to work. Ice and snow in Alabama does not last long. If that melted before I retrieved the remainder of my log I could just hang it up. It would be too muddy or, even once dry, I’d lose the benefit of dragging over ice and snow.
It was about that time I looked up and realized the fence to my lot was less than 15 yards away. I could just cut the log to stove length, toss the pieces over the fence and retrieve them tomorrow. Hell, from there I could just roll them down the hill. With a little luck I might even roll them into my splitting area, or at least close.
And for the first time all afternoon the adult me looked at the Nine Year Old me and said, “Really? We just spent four hours doing an hour and a half’s worth of work?”
And the Nine Year Old said, “Yeah, wasn’t it awesome!”
So I wrapped up. I quickly cut the log into 18 inch sections, tossed the remainder of my tree over the fence and hiked my gear back to the truck. I still had those other eight foot sections to get into the bed along with various other sizeable pieces I had found along the way.
I returned home feeling accomplished. The cold was never uncomfortable, just invigorating and somehow made the whole experience more fun. I went in, kissed my girls, and sat down to a well deserved supper. As I began to warm in front of the fire it all hit me and I found myself moving with the speed and grace of an 80 year old man.
Samantha and the girls laughed at me as I hobbled from the supper table to the big green chair in front of the fire. Halfway through our movie I had to move to another chair as that one was too soft and my stiffening muscles began to complain. There’s a reason Papa Bear favored the harder chair.
But even the stiffness couldn’t dampen my mood. As a gym owner I have seen, and even promoted myself, all manner of play based workouts. There’s a serious effort to get people moving and trying to get past the discomfort of exercise, the dreaded chore of the workout, seems to be the marketing ploy of the decade. Only work, hard work, physical work can be amazingly fun.
My dad hated the work he had to do for my grandfather. He became a computer programmer precisely so he could sit all day and not have to work hard. I’ve spoken to others with similar backgrounds who talk about how much they hated the labor that was thrust upon them.
I know I live in a bizarre and blessed time. A time when I can actively seek out the labor my ancestors worked tirelessly to ensure I didn’t have to do – and turn it into a game.