Log by log, word by word, they grow

One thousand two hundred board feet later, as calculated by Bruno Le Bel on the side of a cardboard box, I am the proud owner of a substantial pile of cedar boards and fir girts. They sit stacked in my field, awaiting incorporation into my timber-peg cabin frame nestled by an old apple tree.

There is nothing quite like the feeling, I realize this morning, of having a supply of fragrant, long, straight wood, sawn from one's own trees, stacked orderly and expectant. There's nothing like the feeling of pitch-covered, calloused hands to know that a day's labor has truly amounted to something: building materials for a structure to inhabit.

Yesterday, Bruno arrived at 6 a.m., towing his portable Wood Mizer sawmill behind his truck. He had several large logs loaded, squared off, and sawn into boards by the time I showed up at 6:40. Jumping right in, I tossed the barky slash to one side and began carefully stacking the shaggy cedar boards.

The hungry bandsaw blade traveled methodically through log after log, turning the irregular cylinders into square beams before slicing off inch-thick planks like so much Swiss cheese. I struggled to keep pace with Bruno, the son of a woodcutter, father of a woodcutter.

Of course, a pile of boards is but the end product of a long line of weekends laboring with family and friends, dating back to April. That's when I started thinning our cedar forest and hauling trees out to the clearing. My son and I grunted and groaned heroically under the weight of many a prize tree felled far from the road.

Yelling "Timber" is the deceptively easy, fun part of timber-harvesting, we soon learned. We tried slinging them between us with rope and dragging, like horses; flipping them end-over-end, like rustic cabers; or rolling them lengthwise, where space allowed.

Bruno would have thought we were nuts. When he came by back in July to size up our intentions and estimate the work, before we started logging, the first thing he said was: "You need a horse. Or a tractor."

Bruno has worked with both. He knew better than we the kind of effort involved in amassing a 30-log pile in the clearing.

"Which would you rather have, Bruno, a tractor or a horse?" I asked.

"A tractor stops eating when you turn it off."

Much as my daughter would have loved the excuse to get a horse, and I would have loved the excuse to get a tractor, we had to work with the available brawn, which runs on donuts, sodas, and naive ambition. I finally wised up and started cutting down trees within 20 feet of the road, chaining them to the back of my decrepit pickup truck, and dragging them down to the pile.

When my friend Rob stopped by to help me drag a particularly tall, heavy fir out of a sawing predicament - I've learned a lot about gravity, fulcrums, leverage, and their relationship to the canopy of dense forests - we came up with the name "Dukes of Hazzard School of Lumbering."

Few trees will not capitulate to the coaxing of a chain tied to the back of a four-wheel-drive pickup, though it may take several runs at high r.p.m. to do the trick.

Eventually, my neighbor put us over the top. Nearing exhaustion, and having used up the proximate trees, we were ecstatic when Dr. Read embraced the chance to drive his new John Deere out from town and skid logs through tight places. This put some big logs within reach. It also intensified my tractor lust.

Finally, the sawing weekend arrived. For two days in our temporary wood yard, I was Bruno's apprentice, watching him buck 16-foot fir logs up onto the saw using his small peavey, or limbing and squaring logs with his chain saw. He gave me tips on sharpening the vicious-looking chisel teeth of the saw, explaining why hand filing produced the best results. Just one example, in his mind, of how some of the old ways cannot be improved upon.

"As-tu faim?" I asked at midday.

"Je suis fou!" he replied.

Lunching on the tailgate of his truck, we discussed draft horses Bruno had known; how much land a pig will clear; his 11 siblings; his work in the woods; the longevity and value of 10 different species of tree; his 27 acres of land that he and his wife are dividing among his children; and the million-dollar houses being erected on nearby shoreline plots. A glance was all it took for Bruno to convey his feeling about the appropriateness of a primary dwelling of such "grandeur," much less a second home!

Now it's hard to go back to sit-down work. I miss the thrum of the saw. There is fir pitch on my hands as I type. My muscles are tired but satisfied. And a scrap of cedar sits atop my file cabinet, perfuming my office with its spicy, woody aroma. I miss watching the boards stack up, the visible accrual of work.

Though it's not quite the same, perhaps I can build a pile of planks today, line by line, sentence by sentence, and craft an inhabitable understanding - the old way, word by word.

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