Erik, my middle son, graduated in May with a degree in surveying from Paul Smiths College in the Adirondacks of New York – “surrounded by over 14,000 acres of college-owned forests, lakes, and natural beauty.” Erik always loved the outdoors. He’s an avid hunter and fisherman. He knew from a young age that he wanted to work in the woods. He loved hearing stories from his grandfather, Pépé, about his lifetime of logging from Maine to Vermont. Pépé was an old-time lumberjack and logged with horses. Erik grew up hearing stories about Belle and Smokey and Pépé’s adventures in the woods of the Northeast. He worked at a time when men lived in logging camps and logs were floated down the river to the sawmill. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Erik completed a two-year Forestry program at the Career Development Center in high school and worked in the woods with George since he was in his early teens. His surveying degree rounded out his skill set for a future in the forest. He’s in his element in that environment and can’t imagine living or working anywhere else.
Friday was a unique and wonderful experience for me – my first taste of mother and son logging! Erik had worked with George all week. On Thursday afternoon, Erik asked George about the plans for Friday. George smiled when he said, “You’ll be cutting trees with your mother tomorrow.” Erik was psyched – though I’m not sure why. He told my oldest son, Shawn, in August that he couldn’t wait to work with me. I expected that he wanted to tease me or criticize me, so I was reluctant to spend the day in the woods with him.
The day started out badly – a little emotional setback for me. I had been doing so well on the ride up the mountain and was pleased that I had found a tolerable amount of comfort. We have had a tremendous amount of rain lately. Soon after we started our climb up the mountain, I saw that more of the road had washed away since my last workday. Trees had been uprooted and thrown in our path. Limbs were down in places that George told me were already precarious. A lump rose in my throat and my eyes started to water slightly. I knew it hadn’t helped that I had watched a safety video about a skidder operator who was killed when his skidder rolled on top of him. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
I rode in silence, gripping the wires of the skidder cage. I tried to suppress my ominous thoughts. But George wasn’t as casual as he normally is. Every day he puts three hard-boiled eggs in his shirt pocket. As we leave the landing, he starts to tap-tap-tap the first egg against the steering wheel to break the shell. I like to think of Hansel and Gretel as George leaves a trail of broken egg shells up the mountain road every day. As he peels the shell, he takes his hands off the steering wheel and the skidder veers slightly to the left until he jerks it back slightly to the right. This is the morning ritual.
Unlike George, I am not a creature of habit. But I find comfort in George’s ritual. On Friday morning he seemed preoccupied. The familiar tap-tap-tapping of George’s hard-boiled egg was an absent sound. George’s hands were busy steering around obstacles, switching gears, lowering the skidder blade and hovering near the emergency brake. As the machine tilted, I felt my stomach lurch. The fear that had finally left me had returned. George sensed my uneasiness but waited until we were half way to the top before he asked if I was okay. He offered to let me off. I didn’t want to walk, I just wanted the ride to end. We continued. The fear exhausted me. By the time we arrived at the job site, I was relieved to get my feet back on the ground.
Erik left before us and drove the 4-wheeler up the mountain. I hiked up to join him at the next plot. The two of us continued the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program plot while George worked on other parts of the property cutting pine logs. We carried our gear into the woods and made a plan for how to work in tandem. I asked Erik not to leave until I was sure my saw started. He started it for me and went on his way.
Erik cut to the west and I cut to the east. He treated me with respect. He no longer mocked my little saw. I guess my logging initiation was complete after ten weeks. Logging with Erik created an interesting shift in our interpersonal dynamics. We were in Erik’s territory now and he was clearly in control – watching out for me, coaching me, helping me. He moved through the woods with confidence and ease – the chainsaw constantly buzzing.
I swept back and forth across the woods cutting saplings and some larger trees. As the terrain became steeper, my stamina plunged. It was a constant fight against gravity, aggravated further by slippery ground. I had to cut a few small trees from a seated position because the ground was too steep to get my footing. My breaks became more frequent.
Erik and I both stopped for lunch. I struggled to find flat ground to sit on comfortably. Even sitting felt like work. I opened my container of two small pieces of chicken and removed a thigh. I set the container down next to me and it immediately tipped over propelling my second tiny piece of chicken down the slope. I watched it carefully knowing I would probably be hungry enough to retrieve it. It was all I brought.
Erik showed me the boundaries of the property along the opposite ridge. We talked about opening day of bow season on Saturday and his tree stand on the other side of the brook valley. He hoped to bring home a deer. He said he’d be glad when this job was finished because he needed to hear “bigger booms”. I thought he was talking about shooting his gun. He just prefers to cut bigger trees – ones that shake the ground and make “bigger booms” when they land.
I got up to retrieve my second piece of chicken from the ground. Protocol is different in the woods – I don’t normally eat food that’s been dropped in the dirt! Erik approved and said, “it’s fine!” He asked if he could file my saw. And I thought, “Wow! What a funny thing for a young man to say to his mother!!” He said, “You dress like Dad,” and I could tell he was not pleased. I defended myself, “He’s my boss, I do what he says.” George is very opinionated about how one should dress in the woods and I follow his advice. Erik’s a rebel and likes to say, “I’m a Vermonta and I do what I wanta!” He showed off his t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off while swatting at a mosquito on his arm. We filled our saws with gas and oil and went back to work.
Erik got his saw pinched in a pine tree. I watched him struggle with it for a long time and admired his restraint. He borrowed my saw to get his unpinched. Afterward, he helped me cut a pair of white birch trees and gave me some cutting tips. I didn’t work for long before I needed another break. I took this photo laying down because I discovered I was less likely to slide down the mountain laying down.
My production was grinding to a halt with my depleted energy. I took a final break and decided I would make one more sweep before calling it a day. I found a large flat rock and relished the opportunity to stand on level ground. Erik saw me and asked if I wanted him to bring my water. Those were like words from heaven!! I was so thirsty, but too tired to climb down to my water. Erik sprinted up the side of the mountain with my water bottle. I envied his youth and vigor.
I told him I was going to finish up and start my hike down the mountain. He chivalrously offered to carry out all our gear. When I asked if he was sure he could get it all, he flexed his muscles and said he was sure. He warned me about a couple dead limbs hanging above me as I started my last cutting for the day.
I inched my way down the mountain stopping to look at mushrooms and anything else that caught my eyes. I dragged a bunch of brush to cover the spot where George had buried Mr. Big, our 17 year old cat, a couple weeks ago. He was worried that an animal would try to dig up Mr. Big’s grave, so we wanted to cover it. Erik and George were working on a lower section when I reached the bottom. Erik was worried that I hadn’t made it down yet, but George assured him that I walked at a snail’s pace and that I was fine. I walked toward the truck anticipating the swarm of mosquitos that had taken residence on the landing. Before I reached the landing, Erik passed from behind me on the 4-wheeler, got in his truck and drove back to offer me a ride home. Wow!! What a treat!
When I got in the truck, Erik was listening to Lucero – an alternative-country rock band with a taste of Memphis soul. When I told Erik I liked them, he put in a CD of his favorite musician, Ryan Bingham, that was also really great. It was nice to discover that Erik and I enjoy some of the same music now. It was especially nice to spend a day with him on his terrain. We gained some new respect for each other in the woods that day. And I look forward to many more.