Sunday, after the rain. Another big, sprawling, wind-wracked tropical deluge midway through the penultimate month of this extraordinarily wet year. November and warm beyond expectations, and we will not let this opportunity vanish or rot or dissipate.
We are gathered on a hillside several hundred feet from the house for the purpose of planting the last big tree of the season, sad because it probably is the last, but a triumph because we are doing it at all, the tree so large and wondrous and the year so late and close to cold and dark. We are two. We are almost four, and fifty-nine and a few weeks.
The big oak is on the ground and about half dismembered and stacked between its own flush-cut stump and a big, high-pruned pine. It forked some fifteen-or-so feet from the ground, a narrow crotch with included bark, and this was its fatal mistake; this was our excuse for the necessity of its removal. "How many oaks do we have, Grandpa?" "We have thousands-tens of thousands. We are rich with Quercus rubra. But we have only two cucumber trees. Soon three."
A man could get killed doing this. Or busted up well enough. One wants to be careful. Clear the area. Cut the small stuff first. In the event, one maple sapling did get pinned under the trunk and could have sprung up and snapped me unconscious or slapped the saw against my face, but I discovered and cautiously severed it and consider myself equal parts wise and lucky. The oak did not hang against a pine trunk or in the branches of a maple: more skill; more luck. We did have to apply the chain and winch so it fell uphill rather than down, toward the road we built last summer so we could inhabit these acres of our woods more happily, more often.
"I'm being very careful with the pulp hook, Grandpa. I don't want to cut myself and make bloods." Just then, as if we were making a movie or a safety film on this slope this Sunday, I stabbed my thumb on a loose strand of wire rope as I was moving the winch away from the trunk it had helped bring down. "Quite a bit of bloods there, wouldn't you say, kid?" "Does it hurt?" "Life hurts. I've had worse." There are scraps of paper towel of unknown age in my jacket pockets equally useful for sopping up blood as for clearing the snot from his residual toddler cold. Blood soon coagulates. Snot clots not, and is in fact encouraged by the wind.
Let this record now explicitly state for concerned readers, anxious Grandma, and any child protective agents hoping to make a quick score and enhance their careers at our expense that no children were put at great risk during this clearly risky undertaking. A boy is safer, I submit, standing on a boulder two tree-lengths away, opposite the direction of fall, than riding a wobbling bicycle on its training wheels down some suburban street with a pointy little rubber basket helmet on his head. And how many youths are going slowly stupid in front of a television this day, or twitching their thumbs to the amphetamine urges of video games?
Six hours shall we labor, until darkness closes our shop. We'll eat lunch when the line of progress intersects the curve of my aching back. We are free to pee when, where, and as often as we feel called. Why is the right to urinate outdoors at will not explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution and promoted in the schools?
For our work we are rewarded. Red oak, straight-grained, cut to stove length and stacked against the inevitability that there will be a winter after the one now close upon us. An improved, more open, more accessible, more attractive property. Physical exercise- aerobic, sustained, comprehensive, stretching and loading all muscle groups-without the cost or nuisance of joining a gym or looking foolish riding some chrome and vinyl machine slippery with the sweat of harried professionals. We have about us a landscape that engages the soul, excites the senses, calms and diminishes whatever worries a man or a boy might have brought with him. People drive long distances and pay good money to stand and look at what we are immersed in, what we breathe, what makes us bleed and gives our bleeding meaning.
We make our firewood in the encyclopedia of life. Here in their Latinate binomials and their common usage are all the trees and shrubs and grasses and forbs and ferns and fungi we could learn in our lifetimes of study. And there are the wild animals who struggle and strive here with us. And in this clearing where once the great oak stood there will by dusk this evening stand Magnolia acuminata with a circle of open sky above it and someday a spring sun to awaken it and draw its leader upward. This boy a half-century hence may slap its solid trunk and say, "I planted this with Grandpa when I was your age," to some boy or girl I'll likely never know but who will know me through him and through my trees and maybe also by these and other paragraphs I shall have left.
We have more to talk about than time to talk. And he sings to me. He knows all the words to "Take Me Out To The Ballgame' and "Albuquerque Turkey" and several others more repetitive and annoying. But I know "Idiot Wind" and "Fourth Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" and "Tombstone Every Mile" and a thousand more, and if I close my eyes and enter a sort of trance I can still sing all ninety-two of the natural elements to a possibly recognizable tune, just as I learned them by repeatedly playing my Tom Lehrer LP on my parent's old mahogany console turntable forty-five years ago. We will teach each other much.
We did not choose each other. I thought his birth a mistake, and he was not consulted in his own creation. Through a difficult and circuitous and heart-wrenching route he came to me. He was rescued, you could say, from worse than the life I shall try to give him. But he has saved me from the conventional, middle-aged winding-down, that "Sitting Here Waiting Around To Die" Townes Van Zandt sang about. He is the anti-complacency drug. He appears at my bedside at dawn, dressed: "Grandpa, get up. We need to eat our English muffins and go cut firewood." His questions are "What?" and "Why?" and "How long, how old, how many?" and most answers beget the infuriating and usually unanswerable follow-up, "Why?"
So we are Socrates and Plato on our stumps, our logs, our rocks. Or we are Emerson and Thoreau. Or we are everybody, and nobody else but ourselves. His job is to grow and learn, to get bigger and better. It shall be my task to keep him and turn him toward the good, the decent, the humane and sane paths, to support doubt and skepticism, to nourish his rational intellect and his loving heart so that when he no longer lives sheltered by our woods he can find the real and hold onto the worthwhile in a world that every day slides more horribly and perhaps irredeemably into cheapness and fantasy and polluted ruin.
I'll need at least twenty more years, and better, thirty. I cannot chance the thrills of street pills or put my liver at risk from too much gin, or drive fast or take up with dangerous women. But neither can I pass up a cucumber tree, fourteen feet tall and two-inch caliper for fifty-four dollars, with the ground still diggable and only an oak in the way, and a student of sawing and digging running to get his tools. The late, great Warren Zevon left us more good advice than we may understand in many memorable songs, and he was right about this, I think, as my boy wakes me before daylight: "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."
This simple, awkward life is resplendent with a ragged glory. We do what we can do. We do what me must. We are grateful this holiday for our woods, for our hours on the Earth, for ourselves and for the chance operations of a cold, uncaring universe that put us here and now in harness together. I am grateful for the gift of publication, that I may say this and you may read it and my young friend someday might as well.
Should you meet him some Thanksgiving some year many years from now, ask him how that magnolia grows, how fine is the view from its branches, how many bloods he and the old man leaked into the leaf litter in its building.
I cannot (and no one should) every week complain about Bush the criminal or Obama the disappointment. Even the vacuuming of my wallet to provide sustenance for Wall Street and Detroit does not occupy my conscious mind every day. Mostly, we all just live our small and grand lives, making of what we have what we can. Mostly, most of us do a decent job of it, with a little help, sometimes, from our friends and younger relatives. Happy Thanksgiving. If you're annoyed at having read this to its conclusion and found little overtly political, please do not complain to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This piece originally appeared in The Wiscasset Newspaper, Wiscasset, Maine.