My dad was a high school principal and my mom a high school teacher. They did a lot of good for a lot of years, and when they retired they deservedly cashed an annuity and built a second home in the mountains.
One wet and windy night this winter, five trees fell in the woods below the house and wiped out the power lines. Mom and Dad were there that night, and both said they slept through the crashing and quaking. This, of course, raises the philosophical-arborial question, “If a tree falls in the forest and someone was there to hear it but didn’t, did it make a sound?” In the couple of months since, my mom has been obsessed, in her uniquely endearing way, with getting my brothers and me there to get those trees cleaned up. She felt some urgency about it, I think, because my dad is having a mitral valve replacement next month, and I think she wants “the trees at the mountain house” off her worry-list when Dad has open-heart surgery. Plus she loves all of us being together, and a work-day offered a good reason.
It took some doing to find a weekend that worked for the three of us and for the indispensable Uncle Billy – indispensable because of his work know-how and his lovable demeanor, not to mention his hydraulic wood-splitter and Kubota all-terrain utility vehicle. Eventually we found a Saturday good for everybody, and so it was that a couple days ago I loaded my car and drove the hour over to their place near Lake Lure.
Mom and Dad, my brother Marshall and his wife Mary, my other brother Tony, his wife Gina, and their twin fifteen-year olds Zack and Alex had arrived Friday evening and spent the night. When I arrived – Jeanine got sick Friday night, so she did not come with me — they were finishing breakfast and making work-anticipatory noises: grunts, boasts, nervous laughs, and various sounds of dread. Marshall was wearing a baseball hat with the letters FU on it, honoring Furman University, where we’d all gone to college. He said, “I thought if we get in an argument but it’s too loud to hear each other, I can just point to my hat.”
Speaking of hats, I own a bright orange Husqvarna chain-sawing helmet. It’s a hard-hat. It’s got ear protection headphones and a wire-mesh screen to protect your face from flying debris. And for whatever reason, it’s got a twelve-inch plastic skirt hanging from the back of the helmet, to cover the neck. When I wear it I look like Paul Bunyan meets The Village People meets The Great Pumpkin meets Lawrence of Arabia.
Tony went out to the car to help unload my gear. Looking into the trunk at my hard-hat, protective chaps, saw, gas can, oil can, and spare chain, Tony said, “I have to tell you. There are way more manly accouterments in there than I’d expect to find in the back of a Prius.”
A few minutes later, Uncle Billy motored up on the Kubota. This isn’t the time to say much about Uncle Billy, so I’ll limit it to this: He loves his family, he addresses you “Bo,” and his five favorite words are, “Betsy, bring me another beer.” Uncle Billy is the kind of man they write country songs about, and his arrival is to a chainsaw gathering what the national anthem is to a baseball game.
We were ready to get down to business, which is to say, a lot of backslapping, whooping, and photographs.
Eventually, though, we ventured down the hill and into the woods, and I cranked my saw. “Waaaaaaaaa-b-b-b-b-b-ba.”
If you’ve ever cut wood with a chainsaw, you know what a great feeling it is: the high whine of a small engine, the vibration in your hands and arms, the smell of fresh sawdust and engine oil, the thump the wood makes when it falls to the ground. Running a chain saw feels powerful and – oh, I’ll say it – manly.
And, if you’ve ever cut wood with a chainsaw, you also know how fleeting are those feelings of power and manliness, how much of the day is spent in futility as you try just to get the damn saw to run: adjusting the chain, filling the saw with oil and the oil-gas mixture, trying to crank it by yanking the starter cord twenty times, then stopping to catch your breath and exhort the saw — “Come on baby!” “Sing for me, sweetness!” “Do it for your daddy!” — then yanking the cord ten more times because now you’re too tired for twenty and you’ve wasted your breath swearing at the saw and calling it names, then giving up and asking somebody else to try, watching them yank the starter cord twenty and ten, listening to them coax and curse, then both of you saying awthehellwithit and trying with a different saw (because there are six of them!), yelling yeeeaaaahhhhh! when this one starts, then cutting on a tree for a minute and realizing that the chain is too dull, so turning the saw off and waiting on somebody to go up the hill to retrieve a new chain, then waiting some more while they go up the hill again because the new chain they brought was the wrong size, then eventually getting a chain on and tightened and the saw re-cranked, and now, baby, we’re cutting wood again!
And oh, is it ever satisfying! Life can be complex and messy — as can families — so to spend even a few minutes doing something so simple and unambiguously productive is good, good medicine.
The trees had come down as a group – one falling on another and then another, they lay there on the mountainside like toppled eighty-foot dominoes – and we cleaned them up as a group. I won’t belabor the details, but everybody helped as they could. I ran the saw all day — it was a bit like chainsawing, a bit like bushwhacking, and a lot like pulling apart a tangled ball of yarn — and I definitely had the easy job. My brothers and nephews had the heavy task of loading the wood onto the Kubota – some of those logs weighed over 100 pounds, or so they said — then they went with the load up the hill to the house and the splitter. Uncle Billy served as advisor, saw repairman, Kubota-driver, and chief splitter. Mary was lead stacker and Mom ran the kitchen. Gina, who’s in the last weeks of chemotherapy and worn out, sat on the deck and encouraged.
My dad had the hardest job of all — restraining himself. Dad loves everything about wood — sawing it up, hauling it, splitting it, stacking it, burning it. He is a wizard with a saw and an axe. He’ll often say, “I was born with an axe in my hand!” to which one of us will reply, “Man, I bet that was tough on Granny!” So it was Capital-T Torture for him to watch us work and not be able to join in because of his heart. But he did his job well, as we all did, and about four o’clock he said we should call it day. We protested falsely for a few minutes – “I think we’ve got one more load in us,” “Remember you’re looking at a high-endurance athlete here” – but we could tell his watching-and-not-being-able-to-do-much was wearing on him, so we soon agreed to stop.
We spent the rest of the afternoon on the porch savoring the good weather, admiring the woodpile, downing cocktails and ibuprofen, playing guitar, and waiting a turn in the shower. Marshall kept saying, “Since I’m the only one in this family who cares about being clean, I think I should get first shower.” (Marshall remembers more of my life than I do, but this is something he remembers Peyton saying years ago when we are together for a family hike, got a little lost, and were all drenched with sweat.) I said I wasn’t planning on taking a shower since I don’t really care about being clean. Mom said, “When you do take a shower, leave those dirty clothes by the washing machine and I’ll wash them.” I replied, “I was just gonna put these back on. I don’t care about being clean.” She made one of her cute Mom faces.
When the light faded we went indoors and ate colored butterbeans and barbecue for dinner.
I can’t end this post without a tribute to my nephews Alex and Zack. They are handsome, smart as whips, and, as I learned this weekend, hard workers. They are also super funny. Alex spent one meal trying to convince me that a pineapple is not really a fruit but a “terrestrial herb.” We went back and forth on this for a while. He read the phrase “terrestrial herb” to me from as many websites as possible before I interjected a question I was sure would settle the argument: “Okay, Mr. Science, tell me this. When you go to the grocery store to buy a pineapple, what section do you look for it in?” Zack then entered the conversation in his brother’s defense: “Produce.”
They do not always stand together as allies, mind you. They adhere somewhat faithfully to the ancient codes of sibling rivalry – trading the occasional insult, interrupting each other’s stories, disputing the other’s version of events. Here is a snippet of conversation from breakfast Sunday morning:
Me: “So do you guys disagree about everything?”
Then we all laughed and traded high fives.
I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. Maybe this: Things fall apart, people too, but love, work, and laughter will keep the house warm and the heart clean.