Logging with Tom

May 21st, 2004; Arlington Washington

You can never prepare for an epiphany. If you were prepared for it – then it wasn’t an epiphany. It was a lesson, or perhaps some kind of self-generated romantic experience – but certainly not an epiphany.

The gravel crunched and popped beneath the tires, as my car rolled down Tom’s curving driveway. I could hear clearly through the open window – my left elbow protruding through the opening – sounds and smells rushing into the stuffy car. It was in that moment that I became aware that the Spring-time light found in Western Washington forest lands is unique. “Dappled” would be the word a writer might use. Diffuse might be an accurate word, but I would have to describe it as sub-marine. It’s like being under water. Under a canopy of deep, green water. You can “feel” the light – like you feel the water when you dive to the bottom of a pool. It presses in upon you – pleasantly enough, but still, it presses. The light somehow blends with the heavy fragrance of alder trees and grasses, and the low frequency buzz of insects to push on all your senses. It is all connected to the light. It’s all green. The sounds and smells are somehow green too. I remember Tom saying to me once that he was always taken aback by the many different shades of green there are around here. This comment was likely followed by another concerning how he “has no creativity”, or he “doesn’t ‘get’ art.” Ironic.

Sub-marine. The light pushes. It wavers and dances, it surrounds you. It gets into everything. You can’t be in it without it soaking you through.

But that wasn’t the epiphany.

About 3 weeks prior to this day, we had one of our regular, Puget Sound, Spring wind storms. But this one was big. Much bigger than normal. Gusts had reached the 70 mile per hour range in places. Power outages spread like spilt milk all over Puget Sound. Hoards of suburbanites were forced to rifle through their Eddie Bauer ä Ditty Bags to find lanterns and battery powered radios.

I wondered how many of them were secretly hoping for a monstrous natural disaster, so that they could live out the dream of actually putting the ‘ol Cadillac ä Escalade into four wheel drive for once, in order to escape the collapsing infrastructure of their neighborhoods: falling trees, heaving pavement….children chasing balls into the street….

Tom wouldn’t need to escape. He already did. He’s been parked on his quasi-rural 5 acre patch of forested land for over 20 years now. He doesn’t need to escape anything. When he needs water, he pumps it from a well.  If he gets hungry, he eats preserved foods that were grown in his garden the year before. If his earth-sheltered home DOES actually get cold, he heats it with wood cut down in his forest.

Sure, BILIIONS of people live similarly. But very few of them CHOSE to live that way. Tom chose it.

No, he can’t tan animal hides for clothing – but he’d like to. He owns a book that will show him how if he ever needs to. And though I’m sure he fantasizes about climbing the utility pole at the end of his driveway and cutting the line that carries power into his domain,  freeing him from that tether to the outside – the reality is that he just can’t generate enough electricity from solar energy, or other “home-made” means, to make it practical. No, the demands of the life that he chose (and that partially chose him) have forced upon him the constraints of dependency.

That damn utility pole.

It demarks the boundary between Tom’s world and the rest of the world in more than one way. It’s like an unwanted but necessary umbilicus. It silently snakes it’s twisted tendril through the tender tree roots, just beneath the skin of his land, a long, stringy black tumor that crosses the border into Tom’s world. It violates it. It plugs itself into his world, sinking it’s fangs into the flesh and holding on ferociously. It brings nourishment, but it’s very presence sucks some thing back out of his world too. Like a leach, or a mosquito. His world is like a fetus that struggles to be free of the womb – but is held in place by that sickening dependency on the cord. Love/hate. Cherish/Disdain. “Fuck me!”/ “Fuck you!”.

That pole also serves as a marker. It sits upon the otherwise unseen line that separates a portion of earth that is Tom’s, from that portion which is…well…everything else. Somewhere around that utility pole is an invisible line, on one side of which is Snohomish County. On THAT side of the line is the State of Washington, the United States of America, the North American Continent. Call the dirt on THAT side of the line whatever you want to, organize it in whatever way you wish, make up your own silly names, your own silly rules, your own stupid culture. But on THIS side of the line – it is Tom’s land. Don’t think about the word “land” in terms of real estate. Think of it in terms of a fairy tale: Tom’s Land. Tomsland.

The people of Tomsland long to breathe the fresh air of true independence, but have been forced to accept the relative peace and the more stale, filtered air of limited interdependence. I picture Tom straddling that black tentacle that blatantly defies his border, squinting his eyes at it, imagining it writhing in the dirt just below his feet – and he pining for a day when it was not necessary. It’s like the citizens of Tomsland are the indigenous people, watching hopelessly as the invaders from outside slowly pull the pillow case of progress over their heads, and squeeze.

Lest I give you with the impression that Tom is an anarchist – let me clarify something. His enemy is not any government per se. He doesn’t war against progress either. He doesn’t decry authority, or culture or art. His enemy is dependence. He is patriotic…to a fault, arguably. He is in fact generous of heart toward his fellow man. But there is great tension in this world for Tom, because his enemy lurks within every institution, every relationship and every activity beyond the borders of Tomsland. Like communism in the 1950’s, Dependence is everywhere.

He’s been forced to give more and more ground to his enemy  lately. He’s getting older; and dependence, like all evil foes, preys upon the “old”.  He says he wouldn’t mind getting older so much if he didn’t have to give up precious territory to his life-long nemesis. Truly, every phone call that involves a request for help (a simple matter for most) is felt by Tom as a surrender to Dependence. It actually pains him to call and ask, “could you do me a favor?” Certainly it hurts less when the request goes out to his son…but it still hurts because, son or not, intentionally or not, Dependence has slithered further across the border. I don’t take it personally. How could I? To a lesser extent, I feel the same way. I’m his son after all.

No, Tom would not need to escape the civil chaos of a natural disaster. The borders of Tomsland, though pressured and perhaps shrinking, are intact, and any disaster that dares cross that border will be confronted within…most of the time.

Even the proudest nations of the world when set upon by earthquake, hurricane, flood or eruption must sometimes call for the help of their most trusted neighbors. The Spring wind storm of 2004 was just such an occasion. An occasion riddled with irony.

You see, several trees had blown down in Tom’s forest, and one of them landed squarely upon the electric meter: the point at which his enemy has one of it’s strongest footholds. Think of it! The single greatest point of dependence upon the outside has nearly been severed (FREEDOM!), and yet the reality is that to survive, this dependence must be maintained (SLAVERY). And further, in order to preserve the hated dependence – Tom must ask for help (MORE SLAVERY).

I heard the familiar words from Tom as we spoke on the phone a couple of days ago, “I just don’t feel as confident anymore about doing certain things.” These are words of mourning over his defeat at the hands of Dependence, and  his explanation for calling me to help with felling a tree, or moving the well pump or some other activity in Tomsland. I feel sad for him when I hear this admission. I want to help, and I don’t mind at all – but I feel HIS sense of defeat  in the pit of my stomach. I wish he didn’t see it as a defeat.

On this day, it is a logging project. In his highly efficient and accurate way, Tom explains the precarious perch of the wind-stricken trees, the threat to the hated/needed electrical meter, and how some of the trees are hung up in the branches of other nearby trees. Based on his description, I determine that it would be a two man job under any circumstance. The phrase “Two-man job” always resounds like “defeat”, though – like “treaty” in the ears of a career military man. Only “Unconditional surrender” means success.

None the less, I arrive at Tom’s place a couple of days later, to find the “dappled” green light pressing in on the scene of fallen trees just as Tom had described.

The epiphany hadn’t arrived yet.

I got out of my car which I parked at the bottom of the driveway near the house, and walked back up the gravel to the spot in the forest just off the road. Tom was already there.  He had the chain saw, a can of fuel, the peavey, a machete, and an axe, carefully laid out like surgical instruments. A come-along was already placed around the butt of a nearby cedar, chains and ropes were positioned and ready in the event that moving any of the fallen trees became “More than a two man job.”

The epiphany began:

“He’s been thinking about EXACTLY how to do this for the last few days.” I thought to myself,  “he’s got everything ready to go. He’s thought through every contingency he possibly can. He was probably out here at 8:00 am looking at the situation again, confirming that what he had been picturing in his mind all night long, was actually the case in reality here this morning.”

The Epiphany continues to pick up speed in my mind: “It’s been more than a few days”, I thought. “He’s been thinking about how to do this for years! He’s built a life based on anticipating certain events – and here is one of those events! Wait a minute…he’s been MADE for this moment. Before Tom was ever born, this moment was anticipated by his creator.”

The epiphany began to unfold rather quickly, like a piece of complex origami – nearly impossible to reconstruct, and only the lingering wrinkles and creases remain to remind you of what it was. It kept coming, faster and deeper, heavier, like the weight of the green light around us.

Tom “walked me through” the situation. We stepped awkwardly over un-even ground, through Salmon Berries, Devil’s club and Vine Maple toward the site of the blow down, and I felt myself rushing backward in time, to the house in Stanwood…to the several acres of thick forest in the back…to a time when I was 12 years old. Somehow my mind managed to stay in two places at once – simultaneously re-living a walk through the dappled green with the Tom of my youth over 25 years ago, and walking through that same dappled green with the Tom of today.

The rest of the day was spent in both places at once.

The blow-down was only a few yards from the edge of the driveway, but a casual observer would never have noticed it through the thick brush.  Of course Tom was aware of what the storm had done the day after it came through. He pointed to the fallen trees and gave me his evaluation of the situation and his strategy for correcting it….I rush back into my pre-adolescence again, as I smell the blend of tobacco, sweat and some unidentified spice coming from Tom. It’s a very familiar fragrance and it has always made me feel safe, and yet ready for an adventure .

With just a few grunts, gestures and some mandatory touching of the offending tree trunks, I quickly understood his intent, and with no surprise, found his plan to be well thought out.

We agreed.

And in that moment I offered him that thing which he needed, and for which he is  saddened to ask. That thing which I long to give, but do not feel qualified to offer. That thing which represents a turning of roles, a sharing of responsibility, an aging of both of us. That thing which makes me feel embarrassed AND proud, which makes Tom feel a little sad, but more at ease: My approval.

We quietly set to work.

As the work progressed, as my mind began to shift gears from the academic, to the instinctive, as I began to perceive a rhythm in the work, I became less aware of the goal, and my left brain fell into a kind of slumber. My right brain began to hum happily in it’s work. Tom and I had begun moving in an ordered and instinctive way.

We had begun a dance.

Not like partners dance, yet not independently like the twirly ladies at Grateful Dead concerts either. The work we were engaged in was the physical representation of interdependence. This work-dance was the ritual that makes corporeal Tom’s dependence.

I think of the dance that Greek men do, what’s it called? They form a large circle of bodies, arms interlaced, not for support, but to create something larger than the individual. They move in the most unique way, first one direction, then suddenly in the other, giving the observer the impression that the dancers form a collective whole – like a flock birds appear to be one giant amorphous organism as they swoop and dive through the sky. The individual must depend on the others in order to create the desired effect. You simply CAN’T do it alone.

Our dance would go like this:

As one of us scurried over, under and around the tree trunk cutting away branches, the other was immediately beside and just behind him, dragging away the severed branch. There is an anticipation required, an awareness of the other and what the other’s intent is in order to do this job well, in order make the dance fluid.

As I dragged limb after limb out into a nearby clearing that Tom had already designated for the slash pile, the quietness in my mind created by the rhythm of the work was broken by a dawning awareness (the epiphany continued!). Tom had designated two types of limb piles and I knew what they were, and how to sort limbs into them simply by intuition….well more accurately because I knew how Tom had planned it to work.

There was the LARGE Pile in which I placed limbs of 3” diameter or greater. These would later be bucked into 16” lengths and stacked with the rest of the fire wood. Then there was the MEDIUM Pile of limbs (between 1” and 3” diameter) which would also be bucked into 16” lengths at a later time, but a different method is used for this size: they are bunched together into a “bucking horse” that holds them steady so that many can be cut at the same time. Doing it any other way would take WAY too much time, and it would then be too easy to just let those limbs go to waste. The SMALL Pile was reserved for any limbs or branches less than 1” in diameter or so and any brush that was broken or up-rooted. These branches would be run through the chipper at a later date, and the output used for mulch or compost (depending on the consistency).

I knew this was the plan without having to be told, because I knew that nothing would be wasted. I knew that my conservative, independent minded father was more sensitive to the rhythms of nature than any thin-skinned amphibian. I knew that in his heart, he strives harder for a balanced and respectful co-existence with his world than any Green Peace “whiner” who ever tossed a Starbucks cup in dumpster at Bumbershoot.

Tom’s face literally turns red at the thought of welfare fraud. He would sooner cut-off his ear as vote for a “liberal”…and yet, with great purpose and planning, he manages the waste in his life through re-use, re-cycling, composting and simple living to such a degree…that he contributes only 4 garbage cans worth of trash to a land fill…each year.

He has little patience for those who blame “corporate America” for their woes. He is angered by those who feel “profit” is evil and that big business should be taxed and “punished” for it’s success…and yet he designed and built an earth-sheltered home that consumes much fewer resources, lessening the burden on an eco-system which is overstressed by industrialization.

I feel him in my blood. He is in me. My thinking is just his thinking but with some appurtenances glued on to it. Doing the work-dance reveals this to me. I think of how we work together in other settings. He’s one of the only people with whom I can carry a heavy or awkward load without having to communicate verbally about “Who’s hands go where, and which side do we lift, and where shall we put it down?” If I am the “Point man” on a task, he is thinking about which tool will be needed next, and getting it ready for me. If he’s the point man, I try to think through the next THREE steps and be ready to “hold” “hand” “prop” steady” “push” “pull” “un-fold” “sharpen” or execute any one of another dozen verbs that will support the “point man”.

The dance continues like this.

I step up too one of the fallen tree trunks with the chainsaw idling, occasionally revving the motor (for what reason I don’t really know, but I instinctively know that it is a required step in the dance). As I enjoy the feel of the powerful saw in my hands, and firmly plant my feet to support the weight of the saw, I momentarily command my left brain to awaken, like a child being carried from the car to the house in the dead of night, it gains just enough consciousness to evaluate the physics of the cut I’m about to make…it sleepily calculates the mass of the trunk, estimates trajectory based on a gravitational constant, and adjusts for the estimated friction of the bar moving through the gap created by the chain’s teeth. It accounts for any potential release of stored energy in the tensioned trunk, and whispers the instructions to my eager hands before it falls back to sleep on Daddy’s shoulder. My right brain smiles broadly and revs the motor to full speed before allowing the comforting weight of the saw to settle upon the unsuspecting tree.

Just as the cut is completed and the first of many sections of tree trunk fall away, forever severed from the whole, I sense Tom moving into the space beside and just behind me again. I am not surprised by his presence…and in fact I realize that I expected his presence in that space, just at that time.  As I move to my right and plant my feet for the next cut, and wake my drowsy left brain again, Tom bends down and rolls the severed section out of the way, and then prepares to do it again with the next section.

Rolling the severed pieces from where they land is not NESSESCARY for this process to continue, but it accomplishes several important things:

  1. It creates a more open (and therefore a safer) environment for the “point man” to work. There is less chance of mis-stepping and falling on the chain saw.
  2. It tramples a slightly larger area of brush, and stages the next section of trunk to be picked up, rolled away or split in place (another part of the dance)
  3. (I don’t know if this was an intentional part of the dance…but it means something to me) The “point-man” feels supported and looked after. I felt supported and looked after by Tom…but he never invaded my right-brain glee over operating a chain-saw. He was there…ready…but never interfering.

I remember learning to do that for him back in the woods or in the shop in Stanwood…standing nearby him as he performed some kind of work, trying to think ahead, anticipating what tool he might need next, having it ready for him, reaching and supporting the work, catching, holding, propping up, turning, lifting scooting…dancing. And I realized that he never TOLD me to do those things really. He modeled them.

He was always fully in the moment…well in the immediate NEXT moment, anticipating, when it came to work. He never TOLD me to look at work that way. He just did it in front of me and I realized it was within me too. Somewhere along the line, I learned that logging, roofing, pulling wire, roto-tilling the garden, cutting a sheet of ply-wood on the table saw, or harvesting potatoes was an opportunity to dance together. For one person to step in beside and just behind the other, and find the ways in which the job can be made more beautiful, more elegant, more flowing and efficient. To do so, is the difference between a ballerina leaping into the air, and a ballerina leaping into the air and being supported by her partner, who carries her a much greater distance, and prolongs the effect of what would have been only be a momentarily graceful leap otherwise.

We move together along the entire length of the trunk…dancing our way along, until it is reduced to a series of 16” long segments. (Tom has placed a mark on the chain saw bar at 16” so that one can measure with great precision the length of each cut. Obsessive compulsive? No. Efficient and beautiful. 16” lengths fit perfectly in his wood stove. Segments cut uniformly stack and STAY stacked much better than segments of varied length, and therefore the very precious wood is not wasted.)

Some time later I drag what, for some inexplicable reason, “feels” like the last limb into the clearing and I pause at the MEDIUM Pile and look back into the thicket where Tom quietly and deliberately works away, and I realize that he has a love and a respect for this creation that is exquisitely rare and authentic.

He is completely un-aware of the wonder with which I am viewing him as he steps out of the forest into the clearing to stand with me.

He turns to look back into the “damaged” area and begins a familiar little ritual: he reaches into one of his breast pockets for a pack of cigarettes, extracts one and puts it between his lips, lights a match, ignites the smoke, shakes out the match and takes a solid drag before tossing the well extinguished (paper…fully bio-degradable) match aside, all the while, silently surveying the blown down area.

Not wanting to seem “weird”, I stand next to him, still in a state of wonder, but avoid looking directly at him, when he says/asks, “That’s probably good enough, huh?”

“Yep.” I say without really thinking.

And before I can fully form a thought, I become aware of what he’s referring to. “Good enough” means we have played our part in the wind storm to it’s fullest.

We have extracted form the environment what was given to us, and no more. There is no need for us to “work” anymore at clearing out the area, for it is Tom’s intent to give that area back. It will be allowed to grow up in what ever manner seems fit and right to the creator. No trees will be planted in the place of the one’s which were taken out by the storm. Enough broken brush and limbs will be allowed to remain to feed whatever seeds fall in this place.

I picture Tom and me like white blood cells swarming over an area of damage in a human body. We sweep in, extracting from the damage that which we need to survive. We do our job, take what we need, contribute what we have to contribute and then sweep back out again. We never consider taking more. Why would we? We are part of a larger organism, and we have a role to play in it. It does not exist FOR us…we simply exist IN it. “Good enough” means we’ve done what we were MADE to do.

I don’t really know Tom’s point of view on the creator of all this. Over the years I have come to understand that he believes there is an intelligence behind it all somewhere. I am awe struck at how I could have ever conceived of ANYTHING, but a loving and romantic creator, who has orchestrated an entire universe, and placed me in it as Tom’s son. The child of this enigmatic and heroic figure. This man who struggles so viciously to maintain his independence, and yet…settles into his role as “dependent creature” with the grace and ease of a gymnast.

All at once, I am more aware than I have ever been that God has orchestrated my identify. I am not Tom’s son by accident. Though I didn’t understand it at the time, logging with Tom was never a simple matter in the larger scheme of things. And I think it’s likely that Tom never really saw beyond the “task at hand” either. But right now, I realize that logging with Tom is my destiny.

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