The chainsaw lies on its side on clean newspaper on the unblemished concrete floor of the neatly organized basement. Bar oil, a scrench, two Stihl manuals uncreased, undog-eared and without oil spots, are lined up alongside the bar. The bar is sheathed in its original protective case.
It’s thirty years old, he says. And, I know, well used. Until their recent move, he and his wife lived with a woodstove for decades.
It is being given to me and uncharitable thoughts of OCD, anal, nerd clog my mind. Thirty years—in that time, best as I can remember, we’d gone through three saws. A fourth, stripped to its carcass, lies in a box under my kitchen table.
At home, it fires in just a handful of pulls. I bought some cleaner thinking I’d have to strip and rebuild the carburetor, but it runs smoothly. When I release the trigger, it idles without stalling and the chain comes to a stop. I had doubted such precision of tuning existed in nature.
Two days later, not paying attention, I drop a tree on it smashing the housing.
The tree is a red maple that blew over in a spring gale. The root wad is ten feet high and its crown rests on a family of yellow birch that bow to their knees beneath its weight. Red maples never achieve the majesty of their maple-brethren. Short, often with several trunks you can ring with your hands growing from the same root system, they look like shrubs. This one has three trunks, each larger than the chainsaw is designed for. It will be a week’s hard work to cut and move the tree from where it lies to my woodpile.
As I work, I wonder. The tree has been here longer than me. I may have played under it and, yet, I cannot bring to mind a memory of it standing, its limbs aloft summer green or afire with autumnal reds. To me, it appeared when it was on its side and looked like firewood.
I’m an early teen helping dad and Bill Mague survey our property lines. The line runs dead center through a balsam fir. Bill takes a double-bitted ax and at shoulder height, the height of his transit, with precision accuracy and without pausing, chops a vee 5 inches into the trunk.
I’m old enough to be impressed, not so old that I think I might still be swinging axes at 60—even more, that one day I might be 60.
I am eleven, maybe twelve and ordering shirts with mom from the Sears Catalogue for the coming school year. I order a chest size large because I am intending to grow my pecs and biceps out in the coming year. Here in eastern Maine, I join a gym determined to make it finally happen.
The gym offers me a discount. I thank the woman but tell her that the $5 off a month she is offering me is not worth the distress of being given my first senior discount.
The dirt road onto the Point is barred by a gate. Because we are east in the time zone, the morning sky, when I pass through it, is pale blue or a washed-out gray. In the evening, my headlights tunnel into the night and the reflective tape on the gate flares in the darkness. I step out of the overheated car into the cold. My breath fogs, the car behind me mutters, the only sound unless a northwesterly is blowing. I open the gate and walk it to its hitch; the needles of the spruce silently crowding the dirt road are sharp, etched into the night by the headlights. I pause, look at the sky, feel the bite of the air, smell the spruce and fir and distant sea, sense the night, center. The opening and closing the gate, if for a minute, brings me awake.
I am drawn to seekers, people who want more from their lives than what they now have—whatever it may be. With seeking comes its shadow, discontent and restlessness.
A favorite poem.
Once I drove to work awash in the beauty of the trees. Now I drive to work to get to work. The gate my sole portal to something beyond.
I have your trumpet, my mother says. How did it end up with her? I quit playing in 1973—my roughest break-up, exceeding even that of any beauty. I’d given it to a nephew, who didn’t stick with it and he passed it to a family friend, from there, it went with my sister’s ex when they split and after that, I lost track. So it found its way back to mom and mom, when sorting through six decades of family memories and memorabilia after dad died, decided it was one of the things she wanted to keep when she moved into her granny flat in Winter Harbor.
I pull it off the shelf in her narrow storage area, shoving boxes out of the way. It is bruised and battered, and it looks as if a pipe-wrench has been taken to the bell—it is torqued to the right. I finger the valves, blow spit from the water key. I understand that taking up the horn again is of the same order of culpable post-middle-age arrogance (with the same probability of success) as if I were to hit on the local high school’s home coming queen.
The Explorers Club sends me the video of my talk. It is good to see, as my assessment of the event is growing unrealistic. I watch it and it strikes me that it is the first time ever (but for scattered 30 or 60 second clips) that I experience me from outside me. Those eyebrows—they must drive folks nuts.
For some time now, my mother has been hugging me differently. In part, because she has shrunk and must reach high and clamp on limpet-like to steady herself on her tiptoes. Yet there is a piece too, of seeming desperation, although I know that’s not the right word. It is as when the end of a journey approaches and you know that the bonds forged during your travels together will soon be broken or diminished as you separate and move down different paths after the journey’s end, heightening and making more poignant the remaining time you have together.
She is 88; not much time, even if she lives to a hundred, left in her journey, our journey together.
For reasons not clear to me, I am thinking frequently about mothers. To grow a life inside of you and birth and nurture it is an experience not fully comprehensible to me. Not incomprehensible as in the sense of a difficult math problem, but in the sense of the experience of it. What is it like to grow and birth another being? How does it change a one’s experience of oneself, of life, of the world, of God?
I look at mothers drinking coffee, reading, being quotidian and am taken aback. Like mystics touched by God and left forever longing for that moment of divine ecstasy, how can a mother return fully, without longing, to everydayness?
And, in the same vein: The ancients noted that of ten parts of sexual pleasure, the woman has nine and the man but one. One wonders why they make us work so hard to get them into bed.
The frost is in the ground, the air sharp and clear, the sun down. I put the axe away—my elbow sore (age or a bad swing?). Birch rounds lie heaped in a white mound dusky in the graying light. I will be warm thru February if winter comes. I leave my next chore for another day and walk the path to the shore. Balancing on stones I first knew on all fours, I head south. It is a month, maybe two, since I last walked this way. Hijacked by a job, by getting ready for winter, putting in wood, I have not been without task or focus for some time.
I circle up onto Yellow Birch Head, the highest bluff on the weather shore and stand at its edge. The sky is close, indigo and deepening, an orange band ribbons its southwestern edge, wind slices across the bay, pushing at the water, running the sea on to the rocky shore. The crash and suck of the waves the only sound. Toward the open sea, south of the orange band, the horizon is as sharp as a razor’s cut.
My task list pushes at me. Its insistence relentless.
The wind, icing my ears, brings me present. I put my back to it and look into the northern sky. Black with a single star. Once I would have known it, even without its neighbors to guide me. The sky is bottomless; I feel like a pebble rattling alone in a tin can.
Why walk this planet? To be lifted, struck and rung like a bell—Annie Dillard. Is this my way?
I turn into the wind, the ribbon has reddened and started pulling itself below the horizon, as if taking itself off stage. The tide has ebbed; the water is shallower now and the waves peak, reaching high before throwing themselves on the rocks.
The half moon floats above me; its chilly glow lights me home.
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