Sunday, February 24, 2008


The birds are back! The eagle perches in the tree top looking speculatively at our chickens scratching busily in the orchard. Flocks of smaller birds zoom across the sky and fill the forest with chatter. Two mallards leap into the air as I walk beside the stream. The winter silence is broken at last.
This is the last moment that winter jobs can be completed before spring arrives in earnest and calls me to prepare for an active summer. Already the orchard needs pruning and spraying before buds start to break. But wait! Another kind of pruning also calls from the forest: that big balsam fir that is dying down from the top will need to be cut down and turned into next winter`s firewood.

There is an fierce, elemental satisfaction to felling a big tree. After the careful work with chainsaw and wedges, there is a final shriek and almighty crash as it lands in a swirl of broken top and torn branches. Yes! It has landed just where I had planned. Yes!

After the trunk has been sawn into rounds, chopping them into firewood pieces begins with the heavy splitting maul. This is more like work, but here is a different kind of satisfaction: the pleasure of the body as the maul strikes the wood and the big round falls apart: the co-ordination of eye, mind and muscle all focused in one instant at one point. After a winter of mostly indoor work, I feel fully alive again.
This participation in the physical skills that make firewood without the complications of interpersonal relationships is a satisfaction I find in my little piece of forest: no bosses or deadlines controlled by something other than the season of the year. There is in this process a different kind of social contract though; a larger social relationship. This tree I`m working on is almost the same age as me. While I was being born in England during the devastation of W.W.II.,this tree was making a start amongst the broken remains of an old growth forest cut down to supply the wartime demand for raw materials. It was already a tall tree when I arrived thirty years ago and we have matured in each others company. You might say we are in a broader kind of social relationship: one that also includes my cutting it down when it`s dying top makes it a hazzard beside the trail that leads to the bottom field.

I notice that despite this fellow feeling for my age -mate I still feel a fierce pleasure in bringing it down, in cutting off it`s branches and bucking it into rounds for my axe. I am a human being after all and that glint in my eye is part of my heritage from the beginning of time. It`s the same reality for all: for us to live, others must die and I will need firewood for warmth next winter.

It is a little tricky admitting that I take such pleasure in felling trees and swinging an axe with such concentration at bits of wood. It`s not quite "nice" somehow; all that rampant pleasure in being alive and living in such an elemental way. It`s not really "civilized," this being fully human. Yet surely, if we narrow our definition of being human to that of nice thoughts and the intellect, the lusty, creative forces within us are denied legitimate expression and become stunted and undeveloped. Then we are caught off guard when they force their way into our surface lives in truly crude and nasty ways. Better by far to live in peace and companionship with our whole selves.

As I drag branches across the stream to the fire I stumble and knock the boulders that line the bank into the rushing water. As I stoop to rebuild the bank, the water is chilly without my gloves on, but I carefully rebuild the stone interlocking pattern. I have spent half my life in this intimate relationship with the basic elements: earth, air, fire and water. It has formed the way I see the world. I am part of this place: the birds that arrive, sing and raise their families, the rocky slopes covered in ferns and deep green moss, the keen air that is sifting through the forest canopy.
As the crickets soft autumn hum
Is to us
So are we to the trees
As are
To the rocks and the hills.
Gary Snyder.

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