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It's a Never-Ending Highway for a Dust Bowl Refugee

There are times I think working in the woods without pay at thirty-nine degrees in a persistent drizzle is better than sex. So far none of those times or those thoughts have coincided with any of the activities immediately preparatory to or inclusive in any of the commonly practiced sex acts with which I have filled a few hours of my six decades.

In fact, while sitting last Saturday in my ragged recliner by the Atlantic 224 (its smoke baffle years ago melted and dissociated by the hot fires I like to run), absorbing the radiated heat from the oxidation of wood I cut a year and a half ago, reading a somewhat tedious and complicated New Yorker article about Bosnian jewel thieves just to delay layering on several filthy sweatshirts and fueling up the Stihl 260, I'd likely have gladly accepted an invitation to an extended exploration with a brace of clever and lithe Asian-American graduate students in advanced mathematics or an aging bleach-blond widow looking for a man to help her finish a thermos of gin-and-tonic and discuss the exciting new Hosta cultivars available this season after we finished whatever two sexagenarians would be able to do to each other.

No such offers having materialized, I did force myself up and out, and I cut a substantial part of a whole new road through a section of the property that will benefit from a great deal of fir removal and pine pruning and that will be a clean and attractive couple acres of good hardwood when I am done. (Assuming I can raise a couple hundred dollars to hire Bardo and his excavator to level the hummocks and fill the dips so the whole road effort will have made sense.) And during the whole of the morning I engaged in this soggy, solitary pursuit I could imagine no place I'd rather have been and no activity more interesting or rewarding or useful or satisfying. (I suppose if any of the ladies previously fantasized had happened by in raingear and undergarments on a quest to study vernal pools I'd have been willing to stop, but it would have been with some regret that I offered my oil- and rain- and sweat-soaked body for our mutual pleasure.)

Cutting firewood, building access roads, improving the appearance, accessibility, utility and productivity of my property is satisfying. The land is better for my having entered the woods and I am better for having applied myself to these purposes. My friend Herman, who is older and in some things wiser than I, tells me often that "We were put on this earth to work." I think he's right. Neither of us believes we were literally put here through any agency or by any entity other than time and chance, but we are grateful for our hours and have discovered through trial-and-error that we are most complete, best fulfilled, the most wholly involved and fully human when we are usefully engaged. Thus, neither of us needs to go beyond our deeded boundaries to find recreation. We do not ski, we do not climb other people's mountains, we do not own sporting gear or watercraft. I do sometimes turn him on to a chance to hear Bob Dylan or John Eddie or Steve Earl in some nearby venue and he will lay down his welding tools or wood splitter for an evening.

But the landscape we have been left by the tectonic restlessness of this volcanic, eroding, uplifting, grinding, heaving, freezing-and-thawing, life-encrusted planet has been enough and more for him and for me and I do not doubt for countless other men and women, most of whom do not feel compelled to splay their knowledge of this great discovery across the Internet as I seem to have to do. But they are there. They are digging the earth and hauling about its stones and cutting and pruning and planting the trees that will grow in this or that climate (and trying a few that won't--or just might).

And then, of course, there are the normal people. (My friend Herman says "Show me one good thing ever accomplished by a normal person," but that's the foundation of a whole other essay, you can be sure). The normal people, or a fair sampling of them, are sitting on grubby carpets and stained fibreglass chairs, breathing machine-handled air in airports all across Europe, moaning that they can't get someplace they thought they ought to be or would rather be or would have been some days gone, had it not been for that volcano in Iceland. I know this because every half hour or so one of them gets interviewed on Public Radio.

You might think that people were no longer starving in Africa or Haiti, that despots weren't suppressing populations of innocents across the globe, that Catholic priests weren't still buggering acolytes, that our brave young soldiers weren't maneuvering drone airplanes over Afghanistan in search of wedding and funeral parties to incinerate, that Joe Lieberman and Barack Obama weren't cooking up greater giveaways to the nuclear and coal industries. You could think that it mattered that a few thousand businessmen wouldn't make their scheduled useless or corrupt (or useless and corrupt) meetings in London or New York or Dubai, that the gates of EuroDisney would open to a few fewer Swedish of German or Japanese families this week.

I don't doubt one feels frustrated and annoyed at being penned in a plastic-infused indoor environment with hundreds of like sufferers, forced to breathe the body exudations of one's fellow man and his increasingly ill-tempered children for hours turning to days. I just don't understand why this obvious fact is newsworthy beyond the first, fleeting mention, why it leads every newscast three days into the event. The twenty-nine miners murdered by an American coal company scarcely received such coverage.

Except, of course, I do understand. It is now commonplace for any middle-class person to fly pretty much anywhere, anytime, for what he or she finds is a small part of the family's budget. The quarters may be cramped, amenities non-existent, security a preposterous, futile, exaggerated, expensive, over-long joke, but a reservation is only a click away, and we have convinced ourselves we must be away, must be somewhere other than where we are. There are conventions. Sales meetings. Weekend getaways. Extended vacations. Summers abroad. Some of us migrate great distances with the seasons, as do the birds and butterflies, but we have not the ambition or skill to make the distances under our own power. We send our children to colleges across the country and parents way over there send our institutions their scholars, the traffic passing itself coming and going each vacation break.

The real story, the one only incidentally covered by the fevered reporters, is of course the great natural event itself--the volcano. This is living, fire-breathing geology, and I could not soon get too much news and analysis and discussion of it. More, this eruption is happening from underneath Eyjafjallajökull glacier--you get your fire and you get your ice! Interview more vulcanologists, plate tectonic experts and Icelandic citizens with unpronounceable names, please. Let the businessmen and tourists and Congressmen on fact-finding junkets wallow in self-pity or get home by taxi or train or trans-Atlantic steamer as they may wish. I'm sure it's a pain, but I don't need to hear their cries.

I went back into the woods again Sunday. It's dangerous work, but maybe safer than going to church, what with all those horny pederast bishops looking for a good time with a youngster of the faith. My boy and I worked through a few showers, an occasional quick shot of sunlight and a small but provocative presence of blackflies. We finished roughing out our path; we piled all the brush we generated; we pruned every good tree along the way as high as the pole saw would go; we heaped the firewood on high ground. Toward the end of the day Karter took to digging caves in brush piles instead of working (he's five). But he stayed cheerful. He was happy to be on the ground with a saw, a set of pruning shears and his old but still (to him) impressive dad directing and informing him.

About seven o'clock we headed back to the house for supper. As we left our tools under cover I said, "Here we are, home again." "We've been home," he said. "Even when we're out in our woods, we're home." And where, after all, would we better be? Europe? Sure, if we were Europeans. I'd love to visit the maple collection at Esveld Nursery in Boskoop, Holland, but with all the sunlight hitting our good ground where we've lately murdered so much balsam fir, we have plenty of room to grow more species and cultivars, rather than pollute the higher levels of the atmosphere by riding across the ocean on an inefficient, unnecessary and (we might one day all come to understand) unconscionable vehicle.

But don't cancel your flight just because of me. I'm well out of sync with the rest of our society on more subjects than you want to hear me tell you about. But think about all the aspects of all our lives we consider normal because so many do the same thing so often. Was it so common fifty years ago, or a hundred? Did we imagine we needed so much fuel, so much speed, so much incessant activity ten or twenty years ago? I remember American life when I was the age my good and useful boy is now. I can't recall knowing anybody who flew anywhere. But I sure do remember some great trees and glorious days among them.

We have a Department Of Homeland Security now in our federal government. Can you say that three times fast and not think Germany, nineteen-thirties? Do we know how that sounds? Do we even understand anymore what real security means? It seems simple to me. If I stay home and busy myself improving my land I'll not only avoid airborne engine-clogging dust, I won't have to take off my shoes and belt on orders from a bored airport guard and risk sitting next to a nicotine-hungry ambassador's boy or a trigger-happy air marshal masquerading as an Omaha Bible salesman.

How much did it cost this burned and battered earth to fly all those politicians and their assistants and wardrobe specialists and makeup artists and speech-writers and all the attendant pundits and pollsters and cameramen and perfumed and powdered anchorpersons to that pointless joke of a climate conference last fall?

The jets fly overhead here all the time. Karter points out every contrail he sees. The more fir we remove, at least until the hardwoods leaf for the season, the more we see, the better the show. But there is still nothing better than a clean blue sky.

On forty-three glacially-rearranged acres of the Northern Transitional Forest Mr. Cooper and his son persist in the hopeless and impossible but delightful task of reordering that landscape to their version of beauty and productivity. Frustrated, annoyed, frequently infuriated by the always-worsening environmental, social and political situation, he sometimes stays up late at night to write these largely pointless and generally ineffective essays.

Christopher Cooper

Christopher Cooper

Christopher Cooper finds the weather in Alna, Maine this March morning damp and chilly (although the pond ice eroding). But he is warmed by the affection of his readers and is pleased to bring them something good and decent just this one time. Persons still wishing to find him should try

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