A different sort of blog post here written a couple years ago while visiting my home in Eitzen, Minnesota and our family farm a few miles south in Iowa.
A few patches of April snow dotted the Minnesota prairie that was once so familiar. Now it was just strange enough for me to call it beautiful. A week of research completed at the University of Minnesota, I drove my rental car three hours south to see my parents in Eitzen. Population: 243. Passing the sign at the edge of my once-home town, I noted that it had grown by 35 people since 1980.
Dad passes that sign twice every day on school bus runs – a retirement job he maintains at the age of 82. It is work to eliminate the last of several mortgages he has taken out on the farm over the years. Seeing the kids each morning brightens his day. So does talking politics with a fellow driver before and after bus runs.
While he was on his afternoon bus run, I offered to drive down to the family farm six miles away and split a load of firewood he had stacked alongside the road. The trees around the wood pile were just starting to show a subtle tint of green at their fingertips. I imagined the sun ever so gently coaxing the green out of them that day, like a father might coax a one-year-old to take his first few steps.
My father doesn’t swing an axe anymore, but I do – and love it. The wood pile was mostly white oak. I picked up one of the first pieces I split and breathed in its aroma. In Oregon’s wine country, where I now live with my wife and children, I look for oak-barrel-fermented chardonnay, because it reminds me of this smell.
The twisted hickory in the pile provided a welcome challenge to my splitting skills. Challenging wood is missing in my life in Oregon. Douglas fir is monotonous. Every piece straight and soft. The hickory’s challenge was also a warm invitation to take off my shirt, revealing my forty-nine-year-old paunch. I smiled at my roundness. That paunch wasn’t there when I swung this same axe as a sixteen-year-old athlete. When we did this work together, Dad was the one with the forty-nine-year-old paunch.
The splitting job done, I decided to take a walk up the ridge road to our thirty-acre field and adjacent forest. Ascending the three hundred-foot hill, it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember ever walking up this hill alone. Dad and I walked this road and the length of our property line fence on many spring days like this one, checking for and fixing breaks in the barbed wire and removing fallen trees. I am the sixth generation of my family to walk this ground. I feel rooted here – like the trees.
The earth was soft under my feet. It smelled of new life after the frozen winter. It would soon be dry enough to let cows in to pasture, but we don’t do that anymore. Years ago, Dad decided to turn most of his 200 acres into a trees-only space. We had planted a few hundred trees each year during my high school days – black walnut, oak, and ash. They were beginning to look… respectable. They are far from seedlings now. In the human world they most resemble tall, lanky, and rather awkward seventh grade boys, their body parts not yet arranged in right proportion to one another.
Walking awkwardly amidst the corn stalk stubble in the ridge field, I rehearsed the line my dad would have predictably made at this moment. “It will be oats this year and alfalfa and clover the next.” That is the typical rotation for cropland like this, too steep to plant in corn every year. I crossed the deteriorating barbed wire remains of a fence to an adjoining pasture area, and remembered playing on the frozen cow ponds we created thirty years ago. The ponds were now barely visible. A tree grew in the middle of one, the beneficiary of run-off silt from the field above.
I paused in places where we had cut firewood from downed trees on the edge of the field, remembering the temporary outdoor factories that would spring up as we processed a fallen tree into split wood chunks. It was like an assembly line; me grabbing the pieces of wood as they fell off my father’s chainsaw blade like butter off a hot knife; putting them in a pile strategically located to be accessible for our truck.
When I was older – around 14 – Dad trusted me with a chainsaw of my own. This changed our assembly line work pattern. Now, instead of Dad cutting and me transferring wood, we cut and moved wood together to the next place on the assembly line.
There is a kind of comradery that is built up when doing work – the same work – together. It feels primal. Common work builds connections that words spoken between people does not. Trappist monks have known this for a millennium.
The final stage of work involved splitting the wood and throwing it into the pickup. This was my favorite. During football season Dad would sometimes turn the radio to an Iowa Hawkeyes game. I have never been a football fan, but my dad liked listening to the games, and I remember thinking, even as a kid, that this was rather novel. My first ten years of life, spent on crowded Long Island just east of Queens, gave me an appreciation for this more remote place and the romance of splitting wood to the sound of a football game on the radio. It was a far cry from the streets of Harlem, the Bronx, and Queens Dad used to walk during his fifteen years as a New York City social worker too.
The tossing of the wood into the truck brought a feeling of satisfaction of a job almost done… and some playfulness. While tossing wood, sometimes I “missed,” adding a dent to the 1974 blue Chevy pickup. It didn’t matter. Dad would acknowledge my “misses” with a half-smile – an ever-so-subtle warning to keep the additional dents on the side of our truck in the single-digits, perhaps no higher than the Hawkeyes game score.
The cutting, splitting, and hauling of firewood between August and November was not always something I enjoyed – especially when we ran short of wood and had to go into the woods in mid-winter in freezing temperatures. I complained. Sometimes a lot. But it was work I understood as necessary. Money was tight and fuel oil was over a buck a gallon. Wood was free.
Today, I too loathe to burn fossil fuels as Dad did, although for me it is more for environmental-stewardship than to avoid the buck-a-gallon cost. My Oregon house also has a wood-burning stove, but it is one that is suitable for display in the living room rather than being banished to the unfinished basement as it was in my Minnesota house, where thirteen pickup loads of wood were squirreled away each year like giant elongated acorns. The cutting and splitting is easier now too. A dump truck delivers four cords worth of uncut logs to my suburban driveway each year. My son helps with the splitting. I’ve watched his aim improve and strength grow just as Dad watched me. I smile at his sense of anticipated accomplishment when he hears the wood crackle just before the last swing that splits the wood in two.
It is a smile like Dad’s, and it contains a memory of gratitude for the ridge road, the field, and the outdoor factory assembly lines where we worked together and grew closer. In quieter moments there is melancholy behind the smile. My son has far fewer stories from that land, and those stories are in the category of “vacations” rather than “home.” My distance from this ancestral land is growing too. When I visit the farm now and see its beauty in the snow, the contours of the land, the trees, and memories of good work, I hope I am learning to better see the beautiful in the familiar and not just the strange.