Sunday, September 1, 2013
Some Necessary Lies
Down past the end of the hayfield and into the woodlot where in late fall you can see the surveyor’s stakes that delineate where our property ends and Harry’s begins, the creek makes a pair of quick turns. In between, there’s a deep pool with the stump of a great tree sitting improbably upright where deep becomes shallow again. That tree when it fell was the cause of that deep place; during one hurricane and another, and through the fall and spring floods, rushing water, diverted under the massive trunk fallen across the stream, dug and dug until some equilibrium was reached or perhaps just until Peter Lundgren came and cut up the obstruction.
It was a three-day job, far longer and more complex than he had expected. The tree was oak, and oak-hard, and the water too deep to stand where a few judicious cuts with the chainsaw might have freed the great logs to fumble their way downstream, likely grounding at the next wide curve, down toward the gristmill where, in a couple of years, they could be assailed again, to be cut up for firewood.
There was also the very real danger that comes with a powerful chainsaw wielded under unstable conditions—ground underfoot that was part slippery rocks and part shifting sand and mud; hardwood sodden and in places still living, making for unexpected changes in the way the saw might move; and, toward the end, the weight of the pieces clamping on the cut.
Normally, Peter told me, you cut from above and below in two opposed V formations, but this was impossible, for the trunk was still half under water. The days were hot and sticky, and the flies and mosquitoes were heavy and difficult to ignore. When he was done, he’d sliced the tree into four parts, with only the middle two headed downstream. The still-leafy upper branches stayed on our peninsula, to be propelled by the next great storm, the one that washed great swaths of the Catskill Mountains down the slopes, swept most of two villages away, and brought portions of houses, house trailers and woodsheds to us. The next spring, Harry complained, only half-joking, that we’d sent that awkward, debris-clad monstrosity down to the gristmill’s waterfall just to ensure that he’d have to pay Peter twice for the same project.
On the other side, Harry’s side, the stump, five feet high, its remaining big roots forming an irregular ball more than eight feet across, tilted near-horizontal through the end of summer and the winds of fall, until the great storm of mid-October. We didn’t live here all the time back then. It was sheer chance that we’d been back for a long weekend of closing-up when the storm came in from the Atlantic, flooding much of New York City and leaving sudden lanes of knocked-down trees and yawing power lines sweeping diagonally across the hillsides up here.
So we didn’t see the stump again till Christmas time, when we went back down with the old dog in the first snow of the season. There it was, perfectly upright, on an island of its own making in the middle of the deep spot where the creek turns. It seemed impossible. At first we imagined it was some other stump, washed down from far upmountain, but the next day, when the sun had melted the snow off its top, we could see the complex trajectories of Peter’s experiments with geometry, physics, and biology, with the angle of the chain, the power of the saw, the stubborn resistance of the waterlogged tree.
It sits there still, some years gone. Today we walked with the new young dog, and when we got to the stony places before the deep pool, he threw himself enthusiastically into the water, wallowing, drinking, and then turning his three tight turns before laying himself down in the shallows for a few moments, cooling himself from his wild running in the hot late-August sun. Downstream from him, in the places where the water had fallen enough to bring the bottom stones up to bask in the dappled sunlight, leaves, some of them already orange and brilliant red and yellow, clung and nestled, as if placed there. Up and down the creek from that vantage point, only a single leaf actually floated, delicately, atop the slow water. Back up to the hayfield, we stopped for a moment to watch a chevron of geese heading south-southeast above us, braying their itinerary to each other, calling out the corrections and then settling in to the long trip.
How do the geese, the trees, the haymown grasses staying brown despite the rains and the warm sun, know what we do not, that it is still summer, but it is also fall, disguised by hot spells and sudden thunderstorms, by barbecues and mornings reading the papers in the lawn chairs beside the stonework patio Dan has built for us? I know what it is. I am a studious observer and I have spent most of my life in places like this, where hot summers always mute to fall and then to bitter winters with the irregular iron-hard ground unsteadying your feet as you walk from the house to the barn or studio or the car in the morning darkness. The angle of the sun grows longer and the time it is high overhead diminishes. The darkness comes sooner day by day, so I look up surprised from my work to see that the clock in the window and the light beyond it contradict one another—it is seven, still an hour from time to print out the day’s work and carry it in to go over while sitting in the chair on the grass, and yet it is already too dark to read the words were I ready to end the sentence here and summon the printer to click and hum.
The verb is wrong: the trees don’t know, nor the geese, nor the haygrass. They are organisms responding to loss of what they need for their exultant lives. And, as yet, we don’t know either; it is August still, for a few more days, and we express a mild sort of outrage that the living things around us are so wrong in their judgment.
Soon, though. Soon it will be time to call Nick and contract with him for a new load of firewood. Time to relight the pilot on the propane furnace, and take the air conditioner out of the studio window so the storm windows can go on and the screens be lugged up to their winter home in the hayloft. Time to look for the bin of sweaters up in the attic crawl-space, and bring out the bags of winter coats, hats, gloves, thick socks and sturdy boots.
Between this moment, still summer, only measurably late by the evidence we view with disbelief, and that one, when hard darkness seeps through the bare scuttling branches, there will be days of a plangent beauty unimaginable now, while the rumble of thunder cuts through the wet, exhausted air, days we don’t believe yet, despite the evidence we amassed last fall, when we trapped the best leaves between sheets of waxed paper and ironed them, just as we had when we were children, and then again when our children were young and the ritual was new to them.
All the rest of what is around us knows. It is we who do not know. It is past time to buy a generator so the sump pumps will not fail us when the next hurricane knocks the power out for hours or days. It is past time to have talked to Nick about that firewood; he is back in school now and may not have time for weeks or longer to take Harry’s tractor out to the fallen trees in the far woodlot and drag them to a clearing, set up the mechanical splitter, cut the logs, and leave them open to the sun and air long enough that they will burn hot and clean come November. And so I will be out behind the barn myself, in a month or so, cutting up the old rail fencing, splitting the slices of oak from what Peter salvaged of the fallen tree, now, finally, purged of the deep-soaked remainders of the high creek that brought someone’s shed, almost intact, tumbling end-over-end to smash, disintegrating, into the stubborn tree that had stood for a century or more before finally falling across the imaginary line that separates one piece of property from another, one season from the next. Cut and split and stack; my hands will be blistered in new places, different from the blisters of the rake and the hoe in the spring or the wheelbarrow and the paint scraper in the summer. Then bring the first loads in to the woodbins by the two fireplaces, the old one small and narrow accommodating only a single day’s fuel, or maybe two; the new one, the one that Harry designed, knowing what we had forgotten, how long is the trek up the hill and past the stand of evergreens, flashlight in one hand, carrier in the other, to replenish what should have been enough for this cold spell, this blizzard, but was not: this new one big enough that it can take two loads from the trailer we inherited from the old man along with the tractor that he loved so immoderately. He is gone now, and that, too, is something we do not believe, yet.
It is good that we are not so honest as the geese, the trees, the haygrass. We will stand as we do now, soaked by the sudden rain, and count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the snap of close thunder. We will sit and read the papers in the morning, watching the edge of the woods, persuading ourselves that the dense green is not already tinged with just a hint of yellow, that the red leaves and brown and orange that we see trapped in the creek, glistening and supersaturated by the gloss of the water, are just evidence of the stress of hot weather and the sudden unexpected violence of the stormy winds. Despite ourselves, we will not prepare but will instead revel in what is, in what will soon be memory, and regret and, flickering, anticipation of each next moment.