It was the moment of pure silence before we would set the forest on its ear with the roar of our chain saws. The deep woods that morning glistened with long tracts of snowy and scary silence, now and then broken by the creaking of a frozen limb swearing it would fall to earth. At best that fall would be a minor distortion, a minor distraction. Yet again, that creak sounded like a baby in the night, or a wailing or a keening, or, at an odder moment, like a voice given to what has no voice. At attention we stood, my friend Eddie LeBlanc and I, some twenty yards apart, some huge oaks apart, their ugly and monstrous arms clawing at early daylight.
It was the moment of pure silence. The clarity stings the memory, carries this day that day’s ambiance. Somehow, inexplicably, it is soul deep, has pine aromas, the acrobatics of light, known temperature touching my face the way I recall the stand on a lone Korean outpost.
Apart we measured each other, having worked this forest for a year of weekends that would eventually prove to be a twelve-year run at cutting and hauling wood. A friendly prophet could have cast this duo; not one word of argument had ever crossed our lips, or one word of advice. That time span covered the years since we had met in a carpool heading off to our jobs some twenty-five miles away from home, another twenty years earlier. The other, each assumed, was old enough and wise enough to do his duty, share his energy, bring his tools into play, mind his own business of life.
Oh, with zest we fished, played cards, drank beer, watched hockey games on TV because our own joyous hockey days were long past, and we lent tools and energies to the other’s needed tasks… car brake repairs, roofing jobs, electrical and plumbing needs and solutions. You name it and we did it, programming much of our lives around labor or the touch of tools. We could have formed a company. At least he should have had a small fix-it shop in Saugus Center with a big sign over the front door that said I Can Fix Anything. And he could, being engineer, radioman, finish carpenter, cabinet maker, TV repairman, mechanic, heavy equipment operator of major incidence, on and on, through the stand-up 40-hour tasks of tradesmen bent to task.
And he was a storyteller.
Eddie, five foot five at best, animated, smiler, great story teller who broadcast with deepest sound effects and extraordinary hand gestures, brought life in a maximum hurry to a quiet and subdued morning car pool. Some sleepy and gray dawns he’d hit us with the force of a blowout. Often he took me from night’s reverie in a rush.
But we never argued and never gave advice; pointing or hinting was clue enough, a nod, a shoulder shrug, a raised eyebrow, a look that questioned some thing almost animate in the field of us.
Now, in this deep forest fifteen miles north of home, the pre-formed silence penetrated each of us, came mystical in its impact, the deep cold making it so much clearer for a listener.
From the crest of the hill just above me, laden clouds billowed behind him, long-time friend, carpool companion, fellow fisherman and logging buddy, Adrien Eduoard LeBlanc yelled down at me as he held his chain saw in the air, saluting the day upon us. “Wood burns twice, you know.” He waved the saw as if it were a ladle from a well. “That’s what they say up in Moncton and Memramcook, way up in New Brunswick, the wood-burning LeBlancs.” And he was right. Sweat ran on my skin though the temperature had dropped since our arrival in the forest. Droplets gathered speed until they hit an obstruction… a belt line, a bent elbow, a high ankle sock in a booted foot. If I stopped working, I acknowledged, my joints would freeze.
But the task was at hand.
It was a sudden December storm of 1971 and the energy crunch was on, oil prices escalating with frenzy. We were cutting trees and hauling logs, part of a State Forest Management effort, in the Willowdale State Forest in Topsfield, MA, not far from the Topsfield Fairgrounds. Being throwbacks to a time of early communal efforts, early time-sharing ventures, we had committed ourselves to conserve energy. Air-tight, cast iron, wood-burning stoves had been trundled into our homes, new chain saws and six-pound mauls brought into our tool collections, our energies dedicated and fused: two saws, two vehicles, two temperaments at one task, and abeyance to one old adage, Do not go alone into the woods with a chain saw.
In my then-231 year old house, one of the two chimneys that had serviced four fireplaces on each side of the house, was completely re-lined to accept wood fires. In turn, Eddie had erected a new chimney on an outer wall of his house, which was a mile away from mine. We’d do battle our own way; Saturday maul’s splitting wood sounded like gunshots.
For close to eight years the whole wood-burning routine was a snap, though the work was hard. Many of our Saturday mornings, and parts of Sundays, were spent here in this forest. The struggle versus the weather, now and then, was more difficult than the work. But we were a team and there were measurable goals each time out; fill each of our vehicles with logs ready to be split once we got them home, and then piled for the drying process in cord lengths.
On the way home on the good days, the season right, the van and truck laden to brims, cooling down from the first heat of the wood, having a noon sandwich and a quenching beer, we fished placid Pye Brook or the Ipswich River for the elusive and phantom trout. The brook, sneaking under old Route One, ran slowly past our feet, while the river was quicker, wider, in its journey, and housed a thousand birds about the air, about our ears. Now and then across the water we’d send a quiet nod at each other when the first nibble came or a hungry carnivore snapped at our floating flyline. At times, I’ll swear to eternity, we were in Elysium. I’ve always believed that that feeling can only happen with keen and durable friendships; demands that are silently made are silently answered. On that account I have always been right. But it took someone like Eddie to make it happen.
And the harvested log, for that matter, still burns twice, I keep telling Eddie on the phone these days. Twenty years ago he moved to Orlando for a job opportunity and we talked every weekend until the computer chat room came upon us a few years ago. Then it was every night we spoke, telling me his old chain saw hung above his mantelpiece, a hard trophy of our long and communal efforts. And these days I do not go to the forest alone with a chain saw. I manage to cut down a few neighbors’ trees right in their yards. I hustle drops from the town tree workers now and then at the roadside. I pick up logs piled for curbside disposal, and scrounge through the Recycling Center at the town dump, often unloading logs from another vehicle right into mine.
Wood still burns twice no matter how you look at it, or how it comes to hand.
Mostly, for me these days, that other first burning is with the maul, the exercise decent and productive in many ways, and for a number of reasons, like exercise for a patched-up ticker, and a yearning for the old energies and a moment of pure silence abounding. But I don’t think I’ve ever swung the maul over my shoulder when I have not thought of my friend’s downhill shout that wood burns twice, knowing the graces of brotherly efforts, still haunted by the feeling that we were throwbacks to another time.
So much comes out of concerted energy. So much gets done. So much is learned. About yourself. About others. Comes about you knowledge and command and respect, and trusts deeper than most friendships. Eddie would say, as the wind started to rise, the chill coming on, “If you want to keep your feet warm, wear a hat.” It was an old survivor’s saying he’d picked up in Boy Scouts as a troop leader for half his life. Or “Don’t let your shadow fall across the water when fishing.” For years he had fished with the legendary Artie Tash and Brother Bentley and Ray Costanza Exel, getting his limit every opening day on the Saugus River, beside one of the fairways of Cedar Glen Golf Course. In a manner of speaking, the river’s gone south these days, as far as the trout are concerned.
Eddie’s there too.
Yet my maul still has a swift arc, the logs crack apart some days like OK Corral gunshots, and neighbors mark the energy. The stacked pile climbs higher in my back yard, starts to run lengthwise along a fence, gathers bees and an occasional squirrel. My sweat rushes and rises and is cast off in vapor. I look at the growing cords of wood and the coming winter, and make no assumptions. More first-time heating is needed, so the second heating can drift inward, lift itself slowly and surely through this old house, can climb the steep stairs, a most welcome tenant when the Montreal Express beats at these outer walls.
The arc, swift, accurate, concerted in its weight and momentum, catches silver from the sun on the maul’s edge, where the sun splinters itself into smithereens, joining my fusion. I move into another experience of my life and bring along what I have learned: Wear a hat if you want to keep your feet warm… Don’t drop shadows on top of trout… Wood heats twice (or more) if you have to cut and haul, and split it… Spending time in Elysium with a friend does not have to pass away from being. The maul in my hands, like any good tool, does wonders for the soul, for old and gracious statements made by my body even if hesitant, for respect and friendship anchored by sweat and good service to one another.
When I cut up a neighbor’s old apple tree one evening’s rush into November, as a favor for the neighbor, and as a ruse to rouse and send the singularly redolent winter apple smoke above our houses, the words ran through me like music. And I said about the apples from this tree soon to be burning: They have all gone now, the fire engine-red Macintosh, under batter with cinnamon, gone to day school on yellow buses with brown-baggers, or bruised to a freckled taupe and plowed under for ransom and ritual. Some will have the life crushed out of them for Thanksgiving cup. Standing on the stiff lawn downwind of winter, I drop the first cold moon of November into a fractured wheel of apple limbs and hear the bark beg away. A pine ridge, thicker than a catcher’s mitt, grabs half the wind riding off Vinegar Hill and squeezes out wrenching cries that hang, like wounded pendants, on the necks of far, thin stars. Deep in the Earth, in a thermal tube of its own making, an earthworm grows toward a rainbow trout sleeping under ice and waiting to be heard, or the last of an apple’s pips black as tar pavement but still on this side of the grass.
It all ends up, most generously, in a letter to Eddie continually ringing in my ears these days as winter plows through, him beset with Parkinson’s, inoperative at the computer, my prayers continually beside each of us: “All day this December cold is a secret of my fleece lined jacket and the bottom of my mittens. The senseless wind, without any direction and purposeless, gets hung up in the muffler I wear as some corrective device, thick and woolly and itchy, around my neck. It’s the one you left in my van the last winter we cut wood in Topsfield and waded through that white tide until we fell exhausted.
You used to laugh about wood heating twice. Now you’ve gone south, and I can hear the cry of the gnarled and aged oak as it lets go and throws the Earth out of kilter, the topmost branch brazenly and suddenly at hand, an old nest scattered to its beginnings. I walked quietly there yesterday, snow thrown like paint everywhere except on the sun side, and half-gray birches, like stalkers sly and half-white in the wind. They made me think of Finnish ski troops the Russians didn’t like around or our own Kasabuski brothers of the 10th Mountain Division rampaging 1944’s northern Italy. I suppose there are pieces of the battlefield left down south, but I bet you think of Topsfield when a cool wind grabs your neck, an old jacket lets out secrets, your fingers remember wood’s endless caress, and all across a sunset sky falling downhill to your ears, a chain saw’s evening prayers.
I swear to you, Eduoard, I can feel it all in the handle of the maul. It’s like this: A three-beer push on the maul handle. My shoulders shooting nerves into fibrous white oak, elm never letting go its fibers, maple reporting splits clean as firecrackers, one time good wood lets go. Out and beyond, an Arab watches me through the eye of a coin hung on edge. I hear the flag sing in front of the house, my own drummer beating high on a hill, and, in strange field, crevice and creek bed, from here to foothills of the Montanas, gunshots of the maul, chain saw’s deep roars, Howitzers booming in the everlasting fray.
Image: Wood Splitting Maul – Shakespeare at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)