Joseph, my friend’s son, drove up from Ashland on a rainy Tuesday to drop the limbs of our broken Black Oak for me. I paid him a hundred dollars for the work helping me clean up the snowstorm damage, but he was, I’m sure, doing it as a favor for me, his dad’s buddy, whom he’s known since he was a child. He’s a tree trimmer who is studying to take his Arborist certification test and, given the ninety miles and four mountain passes of driving from there to here involved, there was no way he was making what he’d otherwise deserve to earn for such a job.
I’ve watched tree guys in action several times, but I can never seem to figure out the steps that they’ll take ahead of time. As a former logger I find myself watching and wondering, “What the hell is he doing that for?” In this case, with the large limbs jammed high up against the half of the big old tree that hadn’t fallen, I expected him to make a cut or two while standing on the ground. That’s what I would have done if I hadn’t decided that, at my age, near seventy, my slower reflexes and diminished agility might be risking too much. My days of being the ballsy guy with a chainsaw were over, I realized with a painful sense of nostalgia. I knew that I needed to leave it to a young buck now.
As with so many jobs that require strength, agility and courage, there is no safe way to do his work. You try your best to use your intelligence and your store of experience to avoid calamity but sometimes that’s just not enough. In the end, there is just you and some mindless thing or other that is bigger and heavier than you and it will be moving. Once that thing—whether animal, vegetable or mineral in nature—starts moving, you are in danger of injury or death. It is beyond your control. Joseph and I both know that there is no such thing as assured safety and that, as a consequence, pain is inevitable.
The only way for a manual laborer to avoid injury is to stop taking those risks, and so to lose the sense of pride in the work which allows you to endure the danger and hardships, by becoming one of “them,” the soft people who take no risks and who look upon your work as beneath them. From up in a tree, up on a ladder or the scaffolding, or there on the rooftop, you look down on them knowing that you are doing something that they either can’t or won’t do and the feeling of disdain become mutual. Many times, over the decades, I looked at someone in a suit and tie and thought to myself, “If he tried to keep up with me, he’d be puking his guts up by noon.”
So, I stood by, watching from a distance as he hung up there in his rope and harness rigging the twinned limbs and chunk of trunk for the drop. Like so many jobs, this one is mostly time spent preparing for the final moments, over an hour in the tree, a few quick saw cuts dropping nearly a ton of green wood on the ground with a thump and then climbing back up above to remove the rigging.
At last, there was something useful for me to do, a way to help besides being ready to call 911 if necessary. There was what seemed like enough rope to rig a nineteenth-century schooner coiled and lying on the ground to be carried over to his car and the young man to be swept clean of the wet sawdust that covered his clothes.
He offered to buck the logs up for firewood as well, but I told him that I’d do the work myself. Joseph laughed when I told him that cutting, splitting and stacking it up would take me about a month, or maybe two, but that I’d get it done. Forty years ago, I too would have found the notion of working at such a slow pace ridiculous, but I’ve learned from experience that nowadays pushing my body too hard can easily leave me unable to work at all for a week afterward. The plan, as such, was to limit myself to an hour or two per day and breaking the daily routine up into a little bit of each process, a little slash piling, a bit of cutting, a little splitting and some stacking each day. With any luck, the cautious work would bring me some healthy exercise rather than crippling pain.
Pushing seventy forces me to consider just how much longer I’ll be able to keep living here on these few acres that my wife and I have owned and cared for these forty-three years. This question seems to be common among my friends here in rural Oregon where our children are lured away to the cities by the desire for better wages, softer jobs and better schools for their own kids. They leave our place and we are left too.
I am mindful that, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Among my grandfather, father and four older brothers, only one of them managed to live to the age of seventy-five. What, I wonder, are my own odds of reaching my eightieth birthday? How soon should I prepare our place for sale and look for a small house in town? After having a stroke in 1959, my grandfather sold his 840 acre farm in Stark County, North Dakota after forty years of farming the place that he bought in 1919. I remember, as a child, visiting the house that he and grandma moved to in Dickinson. A year later he died of a heart attack.
“You’re limping,” my wife told me the morning after Joseph helped us.
It was true.
My left leg was seriously sore from supporting my weight while standing side-hill on the slope as the tree work went on. That afternoon and for the next two afternoons I followed my plan, trying to keep it light but even that little bit of work was too much. Old habits and attitudes ingrained by years of manual labor are hard to shake. Doing just a little more was irresistible. Dragging the smaller branches down from the road bank along with bucking a few rounds and wielding the axe and maul proved to be more than my back could handle. By Saturday I needed to take a day off from the work to rest and heal. It was looking like it might take me even longer than I thought to process all that oak.
That afternoon I read a Facebook post from a local young woman whose fiancé was looking for some day labor for Sunday. “Yard clean-up” was listed as one of his talents. I quickly replied with an offer of four hours of work at twenty dollars cash per hour, my phone number and address. He called later and we set it up for eleven the next morning.
Dustan arrived on time. He looked to be in his twenties, his jeans were even dirtier than mine, brought his own work gloves and he wore a good pair of steel-toed boots—all good signs. He told me that he was used to chopping wood having grown up in the Flathead Lake country near snowy Kalispell, Montana in a wood heated house. That concluded our brief job interview. I’ve never had a job that required a resume and I doubt that he has ever had one. Knowing how to jump in, “grab the snotty end of the stick,” knock it out and move on to the next part, is all any laborer needs to keep a job. There’s no way to hide from it—perform or get fired, it’s as simple as that.
It was an admirable performance by an impressive young man. He kept chopping away with a strong steady pace, helped with side matters whenever asked and had to be told to take his hourly work breaks. By three o’clock he had split and neatly stacked all of the limbs that I had cut into rounds and all of the slash was cut up and piled out in the pasture for burning. After four hours what was left of the mess amounted to a little bit of future puttering around. I thanked him, paid him and, thinking ahead to spring and planting, wrote down his phone number.
As I watched him go, I thought, “I could never keep up with him.”
Robert Leo Heilman lives with his wife in Myrtle Creek, Oregon. He is the author of three books including his award-winning essay collection, Overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country.