The day I grew steel talons
A woodsman is defined by multiple dictionary sources as a person who is accustomed to life in a woodland environment; who is skilled in the arts of the woods such as hunting and trapping; as a lumberman, forester, or woodcutter. Therefore, if my training is to be successful in any classical sense of the term, I figured I had best learn how to cut down trees. I've mentioned firewood in passing multiple times, having been familiar with that labor all my life, but logging is another thing entirely, as I was reminded last weekend.
As with other endeavors, I apprenticed this trade under my father, a man who has fell more trees than anyone would care to count since moving here a couple decades ago. I remember as a child the stench of wood chips and tree sap mixed with sweat and chainsaw oil as he came in from a long day in the woods to collapse in a hot bath. The starch and fight all taken out of his voice, drained by the aches of grappling the forest all day; nothing left but a quiet contempt to be back in a warm house.
In those days I couldn't quite understand why he would do that. Why would he get up before dawn to frigid temperatures, trudge through knee-deep snow wrapped in wool and burdened with a chainsaw and chaps, sweating, cursing, and knocking down trees - any one of which could kill him in a single swoop from above? The answer, as is often the case, was money. He was out to make a living, to get by, because it was necessary.
Logging has deep roots in our part of the country. The whole of Wisconsin was brought up by this land's vast supply of raw lumber product. With rivers, and later railroads, to ship, distribute, buy, and sell the goods of the land, many people first came here prospecting timber, not gold. They earned a living with saws and axes, sawdust and splinters, and while the industry has changed dramatically, it's still being done today.
These are the things I considered while I laid the eight-foot measuring pole across the trunk of a fallen balsam...
I withdrew the measuring pole and watched as the chainsaw my dad operated went buzzing through the fallen tree, sawdust spraying out behind it. I was the pole-man for the day - marking where he would cut each length of downed tree to make eight-foot pulp sticks.
After the sticks of pulp were cut, I set the measuring pole aside and took up a pair of steel tongs. The tongs were fashioned like a pair of claws (think of an eagle with two talons). With one side I would slash into a section of trunk and pull with my back, arm, and legs. The force would cause the other side of the tongs to clamp down and puncture the wood, firmly clutching the fresh cut pulp stick. From there, it was just a simple matter of dragging a 100-pound beam of wood through several feet of snow to pile it with the rest of the former trunk. This job was one of those that there is no way around; hard and physical labor that needed to be done.
In this fashion we continued throughout the day - Dad slaying trees and limbing them with a roaring chainsaw, I with the measuring pole and the tongs to mark and collect pulp sticks. He would size up the trees before cutting them down, walking around clumps of balsam like a hungry predator, planning where they would fall. I would stand back out of the way, protected mostly by paying attention, and if worse came to worse, a hardhat with a metal screen that folded down to shield my face and eyes. I kept the tongs in my hand all day, to the point they eventually became an extension of my body - I had grown talons.
Pa was a master with the saw. His speed at decision-making was an asset made at the hands of many years of experience. At the base of a tree he would cut a pair of 45-degree angles to take out a wedge shape on the side he wanted the tree to fall. Then, from the backside he would cut straight in towards the apex of the missing wedge. If the tree required more convincing, out came the aluminum wedge which was promptly hammered into the backside cut. From there it was simple physics - the wedge forcing the two halves of the tree to separate.
After the tree was down, he would go wild slashing at the thick mass of branches shooting out of the trunk. If you haven't noticed, Christmas trees have a lot of branches. I would come in next, measuring pole in hand, lining up the butt of the tree with the end of the pole then pulling it away for the cut. Rinse and repeat.
The balsam in the forest crop we were cutting were all destined to be removed as they have a shorter lifespan than the hardwood surrounding them. The hardwood, on the other hand, were marked, meaning a selective cut that had us taking down some gnarly trees and leaving the superior ones. "Junk trees," as my dad preferred to call them, were marked with orange spray paint. The forestry logic behind this is to make more room for quality deciduous trees that will have a greater chance of growing into a quality crop years from now.
As we kept the pace of cutting and limbing, clawing and stacking, there was little time to take in all the scenes around me. I began to realize that my experiences in the woods are often more suited for listening and seeing as opposed to striking and pulling. There was little time to wonder at the lay of the land or snow-covered treetops. Though it was impressive to see them come crashing down, generating clouds of powder.
It was easier to take note of the nostalgia of the process once we stopped to gnaw down tuna salad sandwiches, oranges, and pecan pie. There was a landing cleared at the end of the logging road upon which sat a small shack with a barrel stove inside. We split some kindling with a hatchet and started a fire. In a short time, the little shack was almost too hot to sit in. The wood heat brought the feeling back to my hands and feet quickly, though, and a full belly helped refuel both brawn and spirit.
This adventure served as a reminder of a subculture and way of life that still exists. I had been out logging with my father as a kid a few times (although peeling popple during June, in the mud, being eaten to death by sand flies is another story altogether), and a lot of those lessons came back to me when I was set in front of it once again. However, what I saw now as an adult was a living to be made by men who knew how to work raw materials with their hands and their sweat. It's a culture that says if you're willing to work hard, harder than everyone else, starve you shall not. I think that's comforting.
There I was, dug deep into the woods down a winter logging road, a twisting, turning, snow packed, frozen tunnel through managed timber, taking part in an institution commonly overlooked by today's standards of living. I was sweating in 10-degree weather, forced to keep moving, else my body be cursed should a chill set upon me. The snow was up to my knees in many spots, and I couldn't feel my toes after the first few hours.
I had gone out there in search of an adventure and to learn because if I've learned anything it is that we cannot wait for inspiration. What I came back with was a refreshed perspective, a head full of ideas, and a fatigued body. The work was true, hard, and unyielding, but I am an ambitious young man with some strength and a dose of fortitude - a logger I might have made were I not presented with other opportunities.
On the way out of the woods that evening, with tired arms, heavy legs, and backs twisted, we stopped two times to collect dead elm trees standing close to the logging road.
"Firewood is like a bonus on the job," my dad would say before he lowered the face screen on his hardhat and sawed into the dead tree. I had no time to reply, not that I had anything to say by that point in the day, so I left it at a cumbersome nod. Wearily, I snatched at the fallen wood with my talons, dragging the chunks through the snow, back to the truck.
That night, under a clear and starry sky in a house set next to a frozen pond, bordered by frosty red pines and heated by a roaring fire, I slept the logger’s sort of deep sleep - earned.
"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."
- Jack London
See you out there,
A woodsman in training.