The deep-woods origins of Down-East expressions

A lady of otherwise respectable reputation approached me recently to inquire if I knew what it means to "lean toward sawyers." I said I did. We then changed the subject, and after a chat about several matters, she said, "Well, what does it mean?" I said, "What does what mean?"

She said, " 'Leaning toward sawyers.' Who was Mr. Sawyer?"

The expression is heard often in Down-East talk, but there was never any Mr. Sawyer, though one phrase book says he kept a junkyard at, I believe, East Boothbay. The book says that when a boat hogged, got old, and was "nailsick," she would "lean toward Sawyer's" and he would pay a small sum and salvage whatever he could. Anything "leaning toward Sawyer's" was at the end of the line.

This is not correct. If a thing leans toward the sawyers, it means we're in a bind, a fix, a to-do. There's all tophet to pay, and no pitch hot. I told the lady all about it.

The saying comes from lumbering. It has to do with harvesting a tree. Not with chain saws and mechanical tree snippers, but in the old days of ton timbers and crosscut saws.

Back in the Paul Bunyan era of "old growth," when a pine stump was big enough to turn a team of oxen around without their stepping off, the manner of cutting down a tree was thus: First, a tree intended for choice lumber would be cradled so it would come down on a cushion, gently, and the wood wouldn't crack. Small evergreen trees were cut and laid to form a mattress into which the tree would fall.

This prepared, two men with chopping axes would "scarf" the tree. Facing each other on opposite sides of the tree, they would swing their axes alternately, removing chip by chip until they had a V-shaped gouge on the side toward this cradle. These men could cut the scarf with accuracy, so the tree would fall exactly where they wished.

The scarf they cut wouldn't go to the heartwood of the tree. Maybe one-third the diameter. It was never deep enough to cause the tree to fall. With the scarf cut, the direction of the fall was known to the inch or less, and the axemen withdrew. The tree would be felled by sawyers using a six-foot-long, two-man saw with raker teeth.

Setting the saw against the tree so it would pass precisely toward the V of the scarf on the far side, the two sawyers worked vigorously, without stopping, until the blade met the scarf. Then the tree would start to move, very slowly, but gaining, and it would make a great sound of wind in its limbs, and would crash to shiver and lie still. The deed was done.

Things could happen to change the usual, and they did. A sudden shift of wind during the sawing might bring the tree down into a standing tree, and a "hung up" tree could be dangerous.

But the worst thing that could happen was a puff of breeze, or any other mischance, that tipped the standing tree backward just before it began to move, and caused it to lean toward the sawyers. It would happen just as the sawyers were about to let go with the woodland warning, "TIMBER-R-R!" And there would be the standing tree, leaning away from the scarf, its entire weight poised on the saw blade, making it impossible to work the saw one more stroke and free the tree.

It was a dangerous situation. The tree might suddenly go in any direction, but it might also stand there until the men dislodged it with a device called a Samson Pole. The big rule was not to be in the way, whichever way it fell.

A young hardwood was cut, limbed, and placed on the ground with one end pointed at the tree. A second young tree was cut and axed to make a pry. Now the pry was put in place so when the first tree was lifted, the pry pushed against the big tree. A triangle of force was thus brought to bear, and axemen and sawyers combined could lift and start the big tree on its way down. Lacking enough power, the crew could only go home until the wind picked up. When a tree leaned toward the sawyers, you were having real trouble.

Further explanation: To "pay tophet" was a big job. The seams of a vessel's deck planking were made watertight by driving in oakum and then "paying" (pouring over) the crack with hot tar, or pitch. Tophet was the Yankee euphemism for all perdition, and if anybody undertook to waterproof the place, he'd need a great deal of pitch.

An old wooden boat will "hog,' meaning to hump up as pigs seem to do. The wood shifts, and the deckline will have a bump. A hogged boat will rust out her nails so she's "nailsick," and it's difficult to make repairs.

"Ton timber" needs an explanation. In Colonial days, Mother England tried to get a piece of Maine's lumber business, and the law was that all logs must be sawn in English sawmills. If this law had been obeyed, which it wasn't much, the logs would be hewn four-squared by broad ax for shipping to England. Paid for by the ton instead of board feet, the ton timbers had no bark to take up room in the hold.

The forest warning cry of "timber" is so solid in the Maine heritage that a whole restaurant of people will yell "TIMBER-R-R!" if a waitress drops a plate in the kitchen. Children are taught to look up if they hear the call, and to run. Never run with your head down; the danger is above.

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