Digging the Learning Curve: Wood Day

Digging the Learning Curve: Wood Day

On Earth Day, I had an old maple cut down. The tree, large enough to hug and most likely more than a hundred years old, stood between my house and Florence's, the next house down the hill. For more than four years Florence mentioned her fear of the tree falling during the next storm. Although our valley is embraced by the Catskill Mountains, a protected little hollow, wild weather can pull at un-nailed shutters and rip away lawn furniture presenting it to the neighbors like baby toys. The gust of a thunderstorm front moved along the woods, fluttering the leaves on one tree, then the next, and the next, hopping lightly on its way through the Beverkill/Willowemec Valley. Near the top of the maple, lifeless bows, stiffened by the lack of water, shook rather then bent. Branches as thick as my arm littered the untamed area between our houses. "My house just got sided," said Florence referring to the gleaming vinyl that formed the building's new gray and red skin. "That tree's dying. I don't want your insurance to go up because of some damage." Wild spring storms rushed through the Midwest. Headline News showed a photo of a sizable tree cradled on a collapsed roof. My maple had to go. After spending Earth Day watching an "aerial specialist" climb the tree, hang from a strap, brandish his chainsaw, lower massive limbs on ropes, swing from side to side his body silhouetted in the sky, and bring the tree down piece by piece to a waiting crew of men who cut and stacked giant discs of bisected tree, I knew I'd have a Wood Day ahead of me. Yesterday was Wood Day. Bob, a long and lean New York City transplant who is covered with tattoos, arrived at 8:00 AM with his log splitter hitched to a large red truck, and a cigarette dangling from his lips. Our agreement was that for a ridiculously low hourly wage he would split the entire tree and move it from Florence's lawn where it had sat for three months to my lawn for seasoning. He arrived alone. "All my money's going to credit cards," he explained. "My other truck almost ran me over yesterday. I forgot to put it in gear and it rolled up behind me. Had to dive clear. Now the cab's got a big dent and windshield's busted. So there's no way I can hire a guy to help." "I'm going to help you," I said. "I'll just get my gloves and safety goggles. Be right back." The air was cool and the last wisps of fog were still hovering over the valley. Florence's lawn starts at the woods, stays flat for about ten yards, then slopes sharply, about a six foot drop, to the road. My first idea was that I would wheelbarrow smaller cuts of wood down her lawn and up my steep driveway to the stone wall where I thought the timber had the best chance of uninterrupted sun. Then Bob began to move a section of the tree trunk out of the brambly wild area to the lawn. The piece was about 20 inches in diameter and 15 inches long and it rolled toward me as he pushed against the rough bark. He got to the top of the slope and gave it one final shove. It wobbled, diverting from its path toward the truck and waiting splitter, heading straight for Florence's freshly dug mailbox post. As it hit the asphalt and rolled up the slight grade, the log pivoted and landed in the center of the street on its flat side. Relieved, I hopped down the lawn and bent to pull it up and move it out of the road into a position that would block additional trunks from creaming the mailbox. "Don't know if you can lift that," said Bob as I wiggled my fingers under the edge and hoisted it to a rolling position. "I guess you can." He shrugged and turned back to the stack of logs, pulling out the next wooden disc and moving it a few feet away from the top of the slope. As the air heated up, Bob and I established a rhythm, grunting against inertia, coaxing the wood down the hill toward the next step of the day. "Glad you're helping," he said as we sat on overturned sections for a break. "I can't see how you could do this alone," I said. "It would take all day, but I could do it." His razor-cut flattop was flecked with wood chips and glistened with sweat. Blue and red and black and brown tattoo inks decorated his wiry arms. "Is that lady, Florence, out of the hospital yet?" "No. She's in rehab still. I heard she was walking yesterday, so that's good news. Funny thing is that my Mom is in the hospital too. She fell, broke a few toes, and now is in rehab as well." "She okay?" "Well, she has MS, so the definition for okay changes. But she wants to get back home more than anything. I was just up there last week. It's hard." My mother, determined to live alone, fell while trying to transfer from the bed to her wheelchair. I've watched to slow process of transferring. She struggles to get to the edge of her bed, plumb reddish legs sticking out from under her nightgown as her swollen feet dangle. Just her toes touch the ground. She reaches for her chair, checking to make certain that the wheel locks are secure. She rocks, gaining momentum, until she can pull herself off the bed and stands on wobbly un-straighten-able legs. She slowly pivots, stronger leg taking more weight, weaker leg following the baby steps as best as it can. When she senses that she's near the chair, she collapses into it with a groan. "I took care of my dad till he died," said Bob. "It was both the best and the worst thing in the world. I'd do it again, but I won't allow my son to do it for me. He always had my back, my dad. Every time I got in trouble he was always there to bail me out, clean up the mess. Had to help my dad. I do it again. But my son, I can't make him drop his life like I did." Bob looked over at the wood that lay at the bottom of the hill. More than forty discs had tumbled down the incline, forming an unruly pile, waiting to be split. "I'm gonna get a new tattoo on my back. It'll have the front view of the B-17 bomber Memphis Belle, he was on the flight crew for that plane in World War II. The wings'll stretch out across my shoulders. Then on one side I'll have the girl that was painted on its nose and the other side a picture of my dad. He'll have my back, just like he always did." Bob finished his cigarette and we went back to work, rolling and lifting, splitting and heaving wood. It was Wood Day. ---
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