When I walk through our woods in northwestern Indiana, especially the barren woods at the end of winter, I see my eight-year-old self again, helping my grandfather clear out tree trunks during a three-week Easter vacation on my grandparents’ property in central Michigan. I grew up in Germany, and this visit to the States was the only time I spent with my grandfather before his death two years later.
… I was hopping in my thicket, bursting for joy at that power play, cheering for the tractor and my grandfather to win against the brambles.”
In my hands I can feel the metal of the chain that my grandfather had slung around a tree stump, my palms getting hot against the chain links. I am straining against the weight of the stump behind me, pulling the chain, aiming for the hook at the rear of the tractor that my grandfather is backing up towards me. The engine drones. The tractor’s giant back wheels, deeply grooved and as tall as I am, scrunch up the brambles in front of me. The tractor inches towards me, and I inch towards it, and eventually I slip a chain link into the hook. My grandfather waves for me to step back, and I jump behind the stump into more brambles.
“Something could always come loose and snap back at you,” he had warned.
Indeed, a branch once snapped back at my husband’s shin when he moved a log that jammed the front loader of our tractor. Thankfully it didn’t hit his knee or it would have shattered it, but the resulting bruise and swelling had him hobbling for weeks.
Standing in my grandfather’s woods, I watched him shift the tractor out of reverse, and then sit twisted, his right hand clasping the steering wheel as he maneuvered it and turned to see what was going on behind him. The tractor strained against the weight of the stump. The tractor was stronger than I was, but the stump got caught in the brambles which clung with their thorns, their roots planted firmly in the ground. Spindly as they were, they had power. The tractor sputtered black wads of diesel fumes from its stovepipe exhaust. All the while I was hopping in my thicket, bursting for joy at that power play, cheering for the tractor and my grandfather to win against the brambles.
Eventually the stump bounced free of the brambles’ clutch, and I jumped out of the woods and onto my seat on the fender, and we roared to where we were assembling a woodpile for burning.
My grandparents’ property was so vast that I was astounded that even getting the mail was an undertaking coming, as I did, from a country where land is cut into compact parcels, the borders of which are always in sight. Here, I couldn’t tell where one property ended and someone else’s began. Neighbors were invisible, and only the lake beyond the hill beyond the pond was not entirely owned by my grandparents. Every day my grandfather and I rode out on the tractor, with me, bumping in my seat on the fender, grabbing the thin metal rod that served as a seat back to get the mail, to check on the property and decide what the day’s chores would be.
How many times we pulled logs out of the woods, I don’t remember. Sometimes I managed to hook the chain, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes those fallen trees were simply too heavy, or the chain was too short, or my grandfather couldn’t get the tractor close enough.
I loved this kind of work; I loved being outside even if the weather was dank and the woods were muddy. I didn’t get hungry, and I didn’t get cold. I loved being able to do hard labor. I wanted to be out of the house, away from my grandmother and her religious babble. She was into the Rosicrucian Order at the time, and took every opportunity to slip a religious quote into everyday happenings. Rather tellingly, I remember none of them. Instead I remember that she let me peruse the kitchen cabinet where she kept my grandfather’s favorite cream-filled, chocolate glazed cookies, and during my visit she always restocked them so he wouldn’t realize that I was eating them.
My grandfather was not the cuddly type, and would yell at me, or worse, poke fun at me, because I wasn’t understanding something with my limited English and my ignorance of outdoor work. Up until then I had only pushed my parents’ lawn mower and clipped the grass around my mother’s flowerbeds. Nevertheless I remember that quiet rhythm of steady work, the jolty ride on the tractor’s fender, and the thrill of steering the tractor when he put me on his lap and how he let me hold the steering wheel on a straight part of the dirt driveway.
The tractor that my husband and I now own isn’t anything like my grandfather’s. It’s a green and yellow John Deere, not a gray and maroon Ford; it’s got an air-conditioned cab, not a plain butt-fitted seat. There is no seat on the fender, and maybe that’s why I don’t ride it. I have yet to learn how to operate it. For now, I am happy to direct my husband when he backs it up to attach the brush hog to mow the meadow or wave him to maneuver the front pinchers to pick up a pile of branches.
Lately, my husband and I have been splitting wood. A giant pile of logs, chain-sawed into chunks, has to be turned into firewood or it will rot. On a patch of open meadow, the tractor sits rumbling, its rear towards us. The wood splitter is attached to its rear three-point. My husband, in baggy overalls, heaves chunks of wood onto the metal hydraulic line, then presses down the lever to advance the blade towards the wood. As the cross-shaped blade meets the chunk’s round face, it either glides through the wood as if it were butter, cutting it into four neat logs that I, hovering, catch and throw into a big wire cage that we will later stack in the wood shed. Or the wood’s clingy fibers strain to keep to log together until they surrender to the blade’s unrelenting force and smaller logs pop off. Or the wood cracks open, bang! We both jump back as a large splinter flies off, either lunging towards my husband’s steel-toed boots or jumping towards my helmet and mesh-wire screened face.
In summer, we get sticky from the tractor’s diesel engine heat mixed with the humid air and all the wood particles we’re generating. Now and then we take off our helmets and work gloves, wipe our brows, take a swig from a water bottle, and survey our work. For us city dwellers, seeing the pile of wood grow is deeply satisfying.
In the evening, we return home sweaty and dusty. I love the feeling of fatigue in my limbs and the delicious sleep it brings. The next day a twinge in my upper back reminds me of an afternoon picking up freshly split logs and flinging them into a wire cage. But most importantly, the diesel fumes, the weight of the wood, and the rhythm of togetherness, the taking on and handing off, reconjures the memory of outdoor work best performed by two.