April 2009 Issue
A summer job culling timber led to one writer’s lifelong love of the outdoors.
April brings us Arbor Day, a 130-year-old observance during which Americans are politely asked to plant trees for a healthier planet. This quaint celebration now is often overshadowed by its younger and less sentimental cousin, Earth Day, which also celebrates an April birthday, by demanding action on issues from recycling to alternative energy.
Still, I like the idea of marking good old-fashioned Arbor Day each year, not so much by planting a tree but by wandering the woods. If it’s a warm late-April day with the air filled with the smell of moldering leaves and the sounds of returning songbirds, my mind is often drawn back to a couple of summers I spent earning college money by working in Ohio woodlots from Ashland to Ashtabula.
In these reveries I’m often sitting on a stump, using a pair of pliers to pull inch-long hawthorn spines from the thick soles of my steel-toed boots. My lunch, a sandwich and a bottled drink, is waiting in my upturned hard hat, which is balanced on a pile of debris on the forest floor. The smells of the forest soil and plants mingle with those of sawdust, my sweat and the gasoline from my chain saw.
It’s the early 1980s and I’m working for a forestry company’s “timber-stand improvement” unit. Our team — three college-aged guys and one slightly older crew chief — is tasked with improving the growing conditions for merchantable timber, or trees that could eventually be sold to a sawmill. We do this by cutting away the shrubs, vines and trees that might compete with the timber.
The company owner, Jim, was an old friend of a friend of mine who wisely believed that I would learn more by spending a summer in the woods with Jim than I would by flipping patties at Burger King. After a suspicious look at my callous-free hands and skinny physique, Jim gave me a job, perhaps as a favor to our mutual friend. He quickly pegged me with the nickname “college boy” and rolled his eyes when he discovered I was incompetent at a variety of simple tasks like sharpening a chain-saw blade.
I learned fast, though, through long summer days in the woods. Jim looked for us to arrive at work shortly after dawn and let us go when the forest became too dark to see. Each day at first light I would leave my rundown boarding house in Ravenna and drive my Volkswagen Beetle to the company shop near Garrettsville, watching the sun burn the mist off the cornfields and cow pastures of Portage County. We’d sharpen our chain saws and fill our sprayers from the tank of herbicide and then, with the morning chill still in the air, we’d climb into a battered gray Jeep CJ-5 and head off to the day’s job site, chain saws clattering in the back.
Jim insisted we all wear hardhats — the threat of a falling limb was very real. But when I arrived at work the first day wearing a long-sleeved shirt of thick cotton and made a show of insisting on ear protection and leather gloves, Jim rolled his eyes, muttered “college boy,” and rummaged around the workshop to find ear plugs. As the summer wore on I quickly learned that heavy gloves are hot, and that sweat pools in the pockets around earplugs. I soon ditched the gloves, traded in the heavy work shirt for a Bruce Springsteen concert T-shirt and learned to ignore sticky spider webs and the scratches the thorny underbrush left on my hands.
We’d hike through wooded hillsides, chain saws growling, following a trail of flagged trees that Jim had lined out the day before. Mostly, we hunted wild grapevine, native to Ohio’s woods but potentially very destructive in a timber stand. They take over the canopy and block out the sun, eventually killing the trees. We’d cut the plant close to the ground and soak its stump with a spray of herbicide to prevent resprouting.
The condition of our job sites varied from badly abused old pasture to mature beech-maple forests of stately trees and lush ferny undergrowth. Some days we might toil in direct sun, battling huge clumps of grapevine on a scruffy, cut-over lot, while another job might find us in woods that hadn’t been harvested since William Howard Taft was president.
In the morning the sprayer, attached to our hips with a tool belt, didn’t seem so heavy. By late afternoon, after a day of swinging the saw and hiking wooded hillsides, my arms would be throbbing and my legs seemed pinned to the forest floor by the sprayer at my hip.
Still, I learned to truly love the outdoors partly through this job. It’s not that I wasn’t familiar with forests; I’d spent many hours hiking and camping in the woods as a child. But this summer job provided a more intimate experience, with many lasting memories. For hours each day we were immersed in the forest and its elements, learning the plants and their interactions. I discovered the hard way, for example, to be wary when cutting grapevine that snaked loosely into the leafy canopy above, for I might dislodge a hidden dead branch that could come crashing down upon my back and knock the wind out of me. We learned that the bird song was loudest in the early morning hours and that afternoons were for the drone of insects. During lunch breaks we lazed on logs, watching the movement of the clouds and trying to predict the coming weather.
Even heavy rains wouldn’t stop us, for Jim always had something to do. One rainy day we were taken to a pile of black locust logs and told to split them into fence posts. Instead, we drove to a local carryout and bought beer. We sat in the Jeep, laughing and smoking until the incessant sound of the rain on the roof silenced us, and we dropped off to sleep.
On another day, this one heavy with the sticky humidity of late summer, Jim introduced us to riding saplings. A disclaimer may be necessary here: riding saplings isn’t really good for the tree, and it wasn’t a common practice of ours. And yet, that day, Jim must have spied what seemed to him to be just the perfect tree, because he suddenly took off his hardhat and began to shimmy up the trunk of a young hardwood. The rest of us killed our saw motors and watched, amused, as he reached the thinner branches near the top and, just at the right time, kicked out his legs away from the trunk and let his weight carry the treetop nearly to the ground, letting go just before his boots touched the forest floor. The tree snapped back into position, with a few small broken branches the only evidence of his ride.
I sagely pointed out that I had never ridden a sapling but that I knew of this practice through the Robert Frost poem, “Birches.” This drew a predictable eye-roll from Jim. “So give it a shot, college boy.”
I wasn’t about to admit my fear of heights to the crew and so unbuckled the sprayer tank, found a stump to rest my chain saw and began to shimmy up the young tree. Gripping the trunk with my knees and feet and scraping my torso over the broken lower branches, I soon discovered that my much lighter body could climb higher than Jim’s without causing the trunk to bend, and began to get nervous that the trunk would break, or it would shake me loose and I would fall to the ground 20 feet below.
From the forest floor, Jim shouted instructions. “Don’t kick away too early!” I thought briefly of pointing out that I knew that, because “not launching out too soon” was one of the many metaphorical references in Frost’s poem, but thought better of it, and kept both my mouth and my eyes shut as I fought my way to the top of the tree and then, as the trunk swayed broadly, kicked away.
Like a fish on a slender rod, my sudden shifting weight immediately registered on the tree and I began my fall. It lasted only a few seconds, but it was exhilarating and so much fun that I forgot to let go until I hit the ground. The tree jerked itself free and I fell with a graceless tumble into a pile of brush and bracken, and lay in the leaves, chortling loudly and checking my arms and legs for lacerations.
“College boy,” Jim grinned, shaking his head.
That was my last full summer in the woods. I headed back to college in the fall, and worked weekends the following summer for Jim. But by then I was employed as a journalist, beginning a career that would leave me, for the most part, indoors under artificial lights for 20 years. Very soon I married and had children, and the obligations of adulthood didn’t lend themselves to riding saplings — and haven’t since.
Still the sights, smells and sounds of that summer, 30 years ago and a hundred miles away, remain in my memory. And they lighten my heart when I revisit them, perhaps during an Arbor Day ramble in the woods.
Arbor Day 2009
is on Friday, April 24. For more information, visit the Arbor Day Foundation’s Web site, www.arborday.org
, or the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, www.dnr.state.oh.us/tabid/5102/Default.aspx
Randy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Columbus. A former newspaper journalist, he has contributed to Ohio Magazine since the mid-1990s.