A couple of times a year, our circle of country friends gather at Buddha Bob & Jan’s place to celebrate “Woodstack”. We celebrate it with chainsaws, pizza, and beer. In that order, of course; beer before chainsaws is always problematic.
Bob & Jan’s homestead sits in the middle of 70 acres of Ozark forest. In keeping with rural tradition, five or six of us gather together on an early Saturday morning to cut cordwood for the winter. Like barn raising or sheep shearing, many hands make for light work, and it is a great communal way to celebrate friendship.
Steve, Rex, Bruce, Jim, and Tom all arrive in their pickups about 7:00 am. If it is a fall day, there is a definite nip in the air – we can see our breaths as we unload tools from the trucks and prep the work site. Bob fires up Ox, his ancient tractor, and I hop on a back fender as Bob sits behind the wheel, slowing chugging down a path into the forest.
Earlier in the month, Bob scouted out his property and found a fallen oak tree which was perfect for cordwood. He now intends to harvest it and turn it into stacks of wood to heat his home. Everyone who helps gets a share in the harvest and by the end of the shift we all have enough firewood to last us for weeks. It takes more than one tree to fill the need, but there are plenty of dead trees to harvest on his property.
The first tree was a monster of a dead oak tree – some two feet thick and 20 feet long, lying on its side near the bottom of a run-off. Hauling it back to the work site is a two-man job. One guy rocks it back and forth with a 6-foot long pike while the other wrangles a large chain around one end. The chain is hooked to Ox, which crawls back through the woods pulling the tree to the worksite. One guy drives Ox while the other follows behind to monitor the load and run for help if the tractor topples over and crushes the driver.
It is interesting to note that the single most dangerous job in No. America is logging. Police and firefighters have dangerous jobs, no doubt, but they do not even break into the top ten list of Most Dangerous Jobs. At the top is logging, followed by jobs like commercial fishing, long-haul truck driving, and farming.
We make it safely to the worksite, where the team has set up Bob’s hydraulic log splitter. Gas powered, it tilts upright so an operator can sit on a log stool and split 18” long sections of tree trunks into wedges fit for a fireplace or stove. It is probably the safest job in the process, as the splitter has no spinning blades like a chainsaw, but rather slowly noses its way through the trunk sections with a large chisel. We usually have Bruce run the splitter, as he is blind in his right eye. It is never a good idea to put a chainsaw in the hands of a guy who can’t see someone standing next to him. One wrong turn and ZIP! – there goes Bob or Steve!
We unwrap the chain from the log, the team takes some simple measurements, and they begin to carve it up into sections for the splitter. I usually act as “stacker” – I handle the pike when necessary, roll the sections to Bruce, and stack the freshly split wedges into carts and trucks as the chainsaws buzz and the splitter grinds. It is a logging assembly line. When one tree is nearly done, Bob and I take Ox back out for another fallen log to dissect. With 70 acres of forest, Bob has never harvested a healthy tree in his 25 years there: they are always dead and already down, or dead and standing branchless, ready to be taken down.
Five hours of hauling, sawing, splitting, and stacking produces several cords of wood. We all share in the produce, with Bob keeping the lion’s share as it is his property and he and Jan are the only ones who actually heat their home with their large Swedish stove.
While working in the crisp autumn day, I think about what the American philosopher Eric Hoffer said about his job as a longshoreman. He said that there were few finer things in life than to work outdoors with a group of your friends, doing good meaningful work, and carrying on that internal conversation in the back of your mind about an idea or an issue that intrigues you. I totally agree. I would add a fourth item: that deeper communion we experience with God when we are deeply immersed in life, to realize beyond rational thought the immanence of God in our lives as well as God’s transcendence.
Somewhere around one o’clock we are done. Cords of wood are stacked for drying, trucks are filled with equal shares, tools are cleaned and put away, and we troop into the large kitchen where Jan has baked some of her famous thick pizzas. I can smell the bite of the spices as the heat of the kitchen fogs my eyeglasses. Bob breaks out a couple of growlers of his home brew, and glasses are passed all around. Begging dogs circle the table. If it isn’t too late in the day, the gang might even break out a couple guitars and a mandolin to perform some old folk tunes for an hour or so. We are usually home by 5 pm.
I arrive home sweaty and sore, but very happy. As I sit at the kitchen table with C and tell her about the day, I think how Hoffer is right – there are few finer things in life than working outdoors with your friends, doing meaningful work, carrying on that internal conversation in the back of your mind, and feeling the presence of God in the very stuff of life. Deo gratias.