Sunday, July 17, 2011

How I fell in Love with the North Woods

Searching for some meaning, while knowing all the answers, that’s a young man right out of school.  Only in my early twenties, bound for wild places and adventures, I strode into the Brown Paper Company woods department’s office looking to a job.  When asked what I could do, I said anything and meant it.
            They sent that flatland joker from Massachusetts out to cut stump wood.  As an ignorant cocky youth I didn’t need to know what “stump wood” was, but I was sure I could do it.  They just pointed me at a stand of softwood trees and told me to fell them, cut off the limbs, cut the logs into four foot lengths, and then stack the wood neatly to be hauled out later by a bulldozer, which would snake a cable around the pile and drag the whole pile with its winch.  I remember eating lunch on the side of a beautiful trout stream and trying my damnedest find some sort of spiritual enlightenment from the hard physical labor, you know, like from Emerson or Walton or something.  But I didn’t ponder the question too long.  Not knowing how much wood piled made for a decent day’s work, I made sure I cut a lot.
The second day the boss came by and told me that I did mighty well and that starting the following week they would put me with a skidder crew, which meant I’d no longer have to move the wood by hand.  I said that sounded great and then went back to flattening the forest.  A short while later, tangled among the severed tree limbs that littered the ground to a depth of three feet, I lost my balance and my chainsaw fell against my leg.  Wet blood trickled down into my boot and I knew that wasn’t a good sign.
About two weeks later I strode into the woods department office again and told them I was raring to go back to work.  They pointed out I could hardly walk, while I insisted that I could.  Hoping that I’d go away, they said they didn’t have any work cutting trees for me.  I said I’d do anything.  They said I could go striking if I wanted to.  That cocky young guy said striking sounded good and asked where and when to report.
It turned out striking was just following the bulldozers as they pushed out skid trails up the mountains.  If anything fell on the machine’s operator I was to go for help.  With the bum leg and the hobble that I had, help would have been slow coming.  And the job paid less than the workman’s comp insurance paid while I’d been out!
A week later I was introduced to the skidder operator that I would work with, a man you would describe as stout with all capital letters.  Even though he wasn’t any taller than I, his every feature, whether hands, head, ears, feet, or lips, was oversize.
From a seat of an ancient green school bus that the company shuttled the cutters into the woods with, I watched this short broad man, dressed in heavy wool clothes, pull a second pair of pants on over the ones he already wore.  The added layer of fabric only increased his girth and ape like appearance.
He was introduced as Batman and later I was told later that he’d acquired that name for the way he drove his skidder, like a Bat Mobile.  He looked at my chainsaw and shook his head, then said something about I should have a Homelite.  My face must have questioned his statement. 
“No saw gets da tree on da ground faster den da Homelite,” he roared with boisterous conviction.  After dispensing that wisdom, he climbed up onto his enormous yellow skidder and drove off, bouncing over logs and rocks up the mountain.
Our yard sat up high on Cambridge Black Mountain in the unincorporated township of Cambridge, New Hampshire.  The piece had only been cut once before, back in the thirties, to take the spruce out we’d been told.  Enormous hardwoods with limbs bigger than most trees, hemlocks with trunks over waist high when laying on the ground, and a scattering of pines that reached for the heavens grew up there.  Batman’s eyes bulged like frog’s eyes when he saw the wood. 
“Dis is da best chance since I work for da companyee,” he said.  Company was always “com-pan-YEE”.
My job was to cut in the yard.  Proteau, who never spoke English as far as I could tell at that point, was our chopper and would fell the trees up on the mountain.  Batman’s broken English did a poor job of explaining what the trees were to be cut into, so one of the Company scalers wrote out the specs.  Batman was so excited to have someone working with him that could actually read that he took the piece of paper and drove the skidder in circles around the yard waving that paper in his hand.
We were paid piece rate, so much per cord or board foot and the three of us split the total evenly.  As the wood we’d cut was loaded to head for the mills, Batman had me start a ledger to keep track of where the wood went.  He said, “Dat way da companyee can no longer steel from us!”
Every day the large wood piled up fast.  The yellow Bat Mobile would growl as it tugged the heavy trees into the yard.  When Proteau worked far up the mountain, Batman’s trips were less frequent and I’d drop trees near the yard.  Pines came in, tapered from three-plus feet on the butt end to nothing at the top, looking like sixty or seventy-foot rat’s tails.  Gnarly old yellow birch, with their red hearts often punky of rot, were cut into pulp.  Fat rock maple, which Batman told me the mills liked best if it had no heart, just like our boss, were cut into logs.  I lopped white birch into bolt-wood lengths for the dowel mills.  The best of ash, beech, and birch went to a veneer mill.
Thanksgiving Day, headed onto the woods to work on snow packed roads, I zipped around a corner and spotted five partridges pecking at gravel in the road.  Reflexes snapped the wheel to the left and my Bronco spun around backwards and slammed against a snow bank.  The vehicle rolled onto its right side with a terrible crashing sound.
Still sitting in the driver’s seat, I waited the explosion that always happens on TV.  Nothing.  I surveyed the situation.  Two chain saws, a five gallon can of gasoline, toolboxes, tire irons and assorted other clutter are piled all over the windows on down side.  No glass was broken.  Standing on the side of the passenger’s seat, I opened the driver’s window and climbed out.
Four loggers helped roll the buggy back onto its feet and I waited a few minutes for the engine oil to find the crankcase again, then I went off to work again.  
I explained to Batman why I showed up late.  All he said was that he knew something had happened because I was never late before, and then we went to work.
Eventually I was offered a job on a mechanized tree harvesting operation and not long after promoted to run it.  It was a dream job for a young guy that loved the forests of northern New England and everywhere we cut we created great grouse habitat. 
I bought a Brittany Spaniel and he came to work with me almost every day.  Fortunately, my boss, a man named Jim Bates, loved bird hunting and bird dogs, and put up with the mud that my dog brought into the company truck.
Eventually life carried me away to other places, but my heart has always stayed up there in the north woods.          

No comments:

Post a Comment