My father and stepmother live in a two-story log cabin on a lake an hour outside of Ottawa. They have neighbours within walking distance, but the trees around the house are so dense you can’t see them. It is the idyllic life of retirement to a country locale – with a satellite dish, Internet connection, motorboat, ATV and air-conditioning.
Dad also manages over 40 acres of bush near the house. He cuts out the dead trees for firewood and maintains trails through the bush. Once or twice a season I volunteer to come down and help with the wood gathering chores – as I did yesterday.
This is a kind of “lumberjack day-camp” for me – an opportunity to get dirty doing manly work in the great outdoors. A day that stands in sharp-contrast to my usual routine of sitting on my ass, staring at a computer screen, and absorbing caffeine from coffee like a fish taking oxygen from the water.
I love doing this work – something I can’t communicate to my extremely reluctant country-living stepmother. “Try not to kill him,” she said to my father as we pulled out of the driveway on the ATV. At the beginning of the day I had images of hefting a big-ass axe in my plaid shirt. What my task really consisted of was “skidding” (i.e. dragging for all you are worth – in the manner of an ancient Egyptian slave) whole logs from where my dad chain-sawed them down, to a pick-up point near the trail. The day’s work was to cut and stack a stand of ironwood that had been killed by the ice storm of a couple years ago. As the name implies, ironwood is hard and heavy. The first time you pick up an ironwood log, “jesuschrist” is the preferred exclamation (or prayer for help).
After an hour, sweat stung my eyes; little-used muscles complained and had begun to spasm all over my body; my breathing became open-mouthed gasping. At one point, I actually fell to my knees in front of a log. I told my dad that I had spotted a unique, never before seen toad in the leaves. “What’s it look like?” Well…uh…green…with some brown and black. “Oh.”
When we had finished, we both sat on rocks to catch our breath. The silence of the woods settled around us like a warm blanket. Sunlight cut small beams through the dense leafy roof above our heads. We chatted amiably – my father is more open and talkative alone in the woods with me than any other time.
It struck me suddenly that my father had taken more breaks and was ready to quit sooner than I was – I couldn’t ever remember this happening before. This thought was like a quick little blow to the back of my head: he’s really getting older. I had never really considered that these wood gathering sessions (which, let’s be honest, I participate in very infrequently) would ever come to an end.
These thoughts are quickly dispelled, as the “old-man” has to help me stand from my rocky lounge-chair because my legs are seizing up. He’ll be back out here again tomorrow or the next day while I’m back at my desk.
I think I’ll really feel like a grown-up on the day – if it ever happens this way – I’m out in the bush cutting down a tree by myself. This kind of adult-hood I will resist with all my will. I am more than happy to be the “dumb-back” gopher my dad needs while he does the real man’s jobs.
I love doing this work.