The Greenangel Woodchoppers delivered a pile of firewood last week. After returning from a long day in Vancouver, Jennifer and I discovered the happy pile of chopped wood tumbled on the grass beside the woodshed. It was a great surprise and a relief.
We’d been running low on firewood. I was getting worried. And now, here was a full cord, shimmering in the car headlights like a dream!
As soon as I parked the car, I grabbed a flashlight and returned to the pile. I stood there admiring the wood. The stars were out, the air was cold. I could hear the ocean waves crash on the rocks below us, and I breathed in the scent of that fresh wood. Everything was in its proper place.
The intense aroma of freshly chopped fir and cedar triggered a memory of long ago when I worked in the woods one summer between high school and university. It was back-breaking work; my body was wholly unprepared for what I was expected to do. 1
One day, the hook-tender 2, made me carry a 90-pound block (a large steel pulley) to the top of a hill, where we were going to set up a new logging road. It was a futile struggle for me. The ground I had to walk uphill on was soft. I couldn’t get a stable footing, and the weight of the block made the way even harder. Logs had torn up the earth as they were hauled into the landing below.
I could have been Sisyphus! 3 The hook-tender watched me from a stump, laughing a little at my struggles. He’d already carried another block to a stump 40 yards away and walked back to wait for me.
When I finally made it, I dropped the weight and stood, bent over, gasping for air. I was broken, near tears.
“Sit,” he said. “We gotta wait for the straw-lines, anyway.”
Felix the hook-tender
His name was Felix. He was Italian, and sometimes, when speaking, he was barely intelligible. He’d curse and yell when the ground crew was going slow. His face would go red, and he would spit out words in a rage. Whether it was Italian or English, we were never sure.
This day, he was gentle with me.
“Sit, you little fucker, you little fucking crybaby,” he said. He had a soft, fatherly smile on his face.
I sat down on the earth, and he let me be. We were silent.
Below us was a slaughter of fallen trees — cedar, fir, balsam — lying like corpses strewn down the side hill to the landing below. Beyond was a vast panorama of the wilderness: mountains, a lake and a forest as far as you could see. Patches of clear cut were visible, too. Forestry companies do better at hiding their clear-cuts today than in the 1970s.
Clear-cut and primordial forest
The fallers had been through here weeks earlier and had devastated the forest. It was a tangle of exposed tree trunks and shattered branches. These beautiful monoliths that once obscured the sky now lay broken and exposed in the harsh sunlight. It was as if they, too, were gasping for air.
Felix and I were at the highest point of the clear-cut. Behind us were standing trees. The branches above us were bright green, but if you looked deeper into the thicket, it was dark, cool, silent. The forest was as it had always been: ferns, salal, dripping water, rotting logs, a small creek and black earth. It lay like a carpet at the base of thrusting tree trunks.
We were on the verge of a primordial forest and its devastation by loggers.
It was sweltering that day. Sweat stung my eyes, and my upper lip and eyebrows were salt-caked. My back ached. My 17-year-old body was drained and exhausted. The horseflies buzzed around my ears and bit the skin on my forearm before I could swat them away.
Tree pitch, sawdust and black earth
Then, that heavy smell of wood, tree pitch, sawdust and earth penetrated my consciousness. It was so thick and intoxicating it made me feel a bit nauseous.
The smell everywhere in the logging sites. It hung over all the side hills and in the clothes of the loggers in the crummy at the end of the day. You’d step out of the crummy 4 in the morning and be hit with the smell, and it would stay with you the whole day.
After a few minutes, my spirits began to lift. I looked over at Felix. He was pointing at something; a Rufous Hummingbird hovered nearby, maybe 10 feet away, its iridescent neck glistening in the sunlight.
“Every colour of the fucking rainbow”
We watched, hearing its barely audible buzzing sound. It eyed us a few seconds, then darted off along the line of trees behind us.
Felix said, “You see that? Those hummingbirds, they come in every colour of the fucking rainbow!”
I’d like to say I was more moved by the hummingbird’s appearance than Felix was that moment. That something so tiny, colourful, miraculous had visited us in this scene of destruction below, the untouched forest behind us. It was like a poem. It gave me goosebumps.
But Felix’s eyes were wide, and I could see it affected him, too! And his words belied his wonder, though they sounded crude to my inexperienced ears.
Standing beneath the stars last Friday night beside my new cord of wood, that moment from half a life ago came back clear as if it were yesterday. But the smell of freshly chopped wood means warmth and comfort to me now. And deep gratitude for the guys who chopped and delivered it.
Gratitude, too, for the bread that will be baked and offered for sustenance to the good people of Pender Island.
In an earlier post, The Joys of Firewood, I included a haunting poem about the scent of wood by the great Norwegian poet, Hans Børli. Please read it!↩
The hook-tender is the woods foreman in a logging operation↩
Sisyphus was a former King of Corinth who was damned by Hades to roll a boulder uphill eternally, only to have it roll back down every time.↩
A van that carries loggers from the camp office to the logging sites↩