Thursday, December 30, 2010

Day in the Bottomland

   We’ve been on vacation since the day after Christmas, spending time with my mom’s family in West Tennessee. The first day was 95% relaxation (I read while the others played round after round of Rummy), and the next day we stayed over at my great-grandparents’ house and did a little scrapbooking and, of course, eating (which I sometimes think is all we come here for). Today, though, we did what might be the most fun thing of all: we hauled wood. Don’t think I’m being sarcastic; practically anything you do with Uncle Gayle, Grandma and my family is going to be fun, but this was really great.
   It was chilly this morning when we dragged on our thickest clothes and outsize leather gloves. We were going to load wood for Granny and Pa’s monster wood stove (which keeps their tiny house at a constant temperature of roughly 150 degrees). We drove to their place (miles deep in the backcountry), which is surrounded by mountains of rusting junk and the remnants of about ten ancient automobiles. We rattled along the rutted dirt road in our 4x4 pickup truck, down to the cutting site.
   In the hills of West Tennessee there is a kind of terrain called the bottomland. This is a place by a river where the sediments have been washed down from the slopes above and settled into rich farmland. When the rains come this is where the water settles, and the ground can become wet and boggy. The soil, which is a strange mixture of sand and red clay, forms giant puddles, erodes into gullies, and splits the land into jagged wrinkles. This is where we were headed.

   The four-minute journey was a constant barrage of jolts, and the windshield wipers vainly attempted to clear the glass of the constant sprinkle as we slid our way downhill. Mom was afraid that the old stick-shift might not be able to make it over a sharp ditch formed by a small creek. We in the backseat braced ourselves for impact as we jerked, bounced, and jarred our way down into it and up the other side.
   Turning to the left we came in sight of Uncle Gayle, who had been splitting the huge chunks of wood cut days before. He has a huge wood splitter with 22 tons of power behind the massive blade. Once we were out of the pickup we could hear its rattling roar and the cracking of wood as the iron wedge cut through half a century of hard red oak like butter. Beside the splitter was a pile of fresh-cut firewood—growing larger by the second.

   We got our marching orders and set to work. Everyone grabbed a giant piece and pitched it (gently) into the bed of the old farm truck, trying desperately to not shatter the back window into a million pieces. Heave ho, heave ho; it’s a steady rhythm of breathing and heaving, one piece at a time. Pa at 87 years old was still finding ways to be useful: tossing the split wood onto the pile. He lost his right eye a couple of years ago and isn’t as strong as he once was, but he was still out here in the field he once cultivated—with the cold drizzle dripping off the end of his nose. We began to heat up, despite the cool weather. They say wood warms you twice—once when you cut it and once when you burn it.
   When the bed of the truck was heaped high we slammed the doors and rattled back up the steep hill, through the cavernous ruts, and to the house where we backed up to the front porch. There wasn’t much room for wood there, but once we removed a washing machine and freezer there was only one refrigerator and two more freezers left to take up space. We started heaping the wood high on one end. The reddish pieces were oddly shaped, some torn and mutilated by the splitter so that they resembled strips of raw meat, and others covered with lichen and fungi. They’ll burn well, though, and keep the old couple warm during the winter.

   Back down in the bottomland we got back into the spirit of loading. The camaraderie was contagious, and we laughed more than anything else. Jokes and witticisms flew back and forth over the rumble of the splitter, and we tacitly competed to see who could toss wood the fastest. We rolled huge stumps over to Uncle Gayle on our hands and knees, then watched for a moment in silent wonder as he moved them into position and the blade came slicing down, narrowly missing his fingers every time.
   Another two trips and we started singing—old gospel tunes that seemed just right for the occasion. We slipped into an off-key but enthusiastic rendition of a Garth Brooks song as we tumbled our way through the creek ditch once more, then piled out of the old Dodge for yet another load. Almost before we knew it we’d done five loads, the porch was full, and my breakfast of Pop Tarts long-gone. It was time to head over to Aunt Lynda’s for some warm, cheesy chili dogs.
   It was a great feeling to strip off our grimy, damp clothes and step inside the cozy house. Lunch was filling and delicious, and as we sat around the table munching on the last of the Christmas candy we could rest assured that there’d been a job well done.   

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