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A Yankee Notebook

July 3, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – The month of June was suspiciously pleasant and cool, only hinting at the furnace of July in Vermont, which began today. Mild thunderstorms rumbled through, disrupting our church’s outdoor pancake breakfast, followed by a humid overcast that occasionally parted to reveal the furnace door. I find the heat extremely disagreeable, and in a couple of weeks will depart for latitudes where I’m more likely to suffer from hypothermia than heat stroke. Meanwhile, there’s been a pile of logs in the back yard crying to become firewood.

I used to caution my carpenters, whenever we approached a remodeling job that involved some demolition, that ripping and tearing should not be not demonstrations of machismo, but, rather, brains. “Go at it as if you were seventy years old,” I advised. Now that I’ve long ago passed that milestone myself, I find it easier than ever to take my own advice – especially in splitting wood. No more vigorous muscling and heaving of hardwood bolts from place to place; no more heavy monster maul far overhead and crashing down on recalcitrant knots; no more running with the wheelbarrow; just a slow, purposeful procession from one task to another. I’m accompanied by the tools that over decades have become a part of me: an ancient chain saw that still amazes me, a platform peavey to keep the saw chain out of the dirt, a light Swedish axe for trimming branches, and a Swedish splitting maul I wish I’d discovered years earlier. And a large bottle of ibuprofen.

This was also the week in which Mazie the Robin’s kids were finally fledged and left their dim, well-protected nest high on the back wall inside the garage. They’d grown from three wide-open maws that popped up from the nest whenever I made the slightest noise, to three sets of beady eyes and frizzy pates that quietly watched me with impotent dread. Today was their day to evacuate their comfortable quarters for whatever came next.

The phoebes had left the garage soffit at least a week earlier without the slightest fuss or public notice. But robins seem to feel a need to announce their departure to the world. When I stepped into the yard to get out the tools, I could hear the distinctive cheep-cheep-cheep of the parents telling the kids that the gravy train had reached its last station and that it was time to start finding their own worms. Inside the garage, no little heads stuck up above the smooth dried-mud rim of the nest. But I could still hear them peeping. They were in there somewhere.

Trusting they could find their own way out, I got the saw down and started sharpening it on the tailgate of the truck. Still the peeping, especially from near the trash cans. Hmm. I stole quietly over there, listening. Aha! One of them had in his maiden flight – which is always a frantic, descending trajectory – managed to land in an open, empty trash can, and was trapped at the bottom. I turned the can onto its side. He shot out, flapping noisily, into the driveway. Then, seemingly suddenly shocked and disoriented by the exponential increase in his possibilities, he squatted on the gravel and peeped pitifully for assistance. But robins are less conflicted about their responsibilities than are human parents. There’s no going back with them, no boomerangs. Once they’ve seen their kids safely to a perch, everybody apparently gets on with his life.

All day the trees around the yard were full of robinic messages, both plaintive and insistent. Out in the open, I kept one eye on the sky. The day before, I’d seen Ming the Merciless soaring broad-winged, high up on a brisk northwest wind. I was sure the racket would attract him. But he didn’t show. I bent to my labors.

There’s a lot to recommend wood-splitting by the elderly. Loosed from the fantasy of superhumanity, we can ruminate and reflect while we work. I find that I’m much more careful with the tools than I once was, and set them out of the way between their stints. When a block of soft maple presents me with a dime-sized target of heartwood, I aim dead at it, knowing that no knots can run through it, and it’ll split clean with a single blow. I can recite to myself (I finally know what old guys are up to when, as we used to think, they’re talking to themselves) Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Frost split blocks of oak, he says. He changed it from an earlier manuscript in which he split beech. Doesn’t matter; either one is a joy to work with, though oak is heavier to handle. I keep the splits well back from my chopping block, lest I stumble over one and go crashing down. I throw the cleanest ones onto a separate pile. They’ll go into the wood rack on the back porch, where every visitor can see them; the regulars go into the cellar next to the furnace.

It was a three-T-shirt day. The humidity and effort soaked each one. I keep a fresh spare by the back door to put on before going in to rest my back, or to get lunch or a cup of coffee. What a difference between this work and that of the days when I used a hydraulic splitter – bent for hours over the roaring, laboring gasoline engine, running chunks through as fast as possible, closed off from everything else by ear plugs. Now, even though still looking down, I see a lot more.

An earwig runs madly across the floor of the wheelbarrow. I’ve read that adult earwigs dutifully tend their children, so I wait for it to get clear before loading wood. A length of popple about to get sawn into sixteen-inch chunks shows a small hole in the bark where a large black wasp appears to have a nest. I set it aside. The same strange loss of enthusiasm for killing a deer in the fall seems to have affected my regard for the little creatures beneath my feet, as well. I help a daddy longlegs out of the line of fire. A black chunk of dried mud moves suddenly, right where I’m about to toss a piece of fancy-grade maple for the porch, and turns out to be a small toad. I carry him to a safer spot. In splitting wood, as in medicine, it’s important to do no harm.

Photo by Willem Lange