Lumberjacks, Snakes, and Woodstoves

We don’t have a wood stove. Even our fireplace is gas flames licking around ceramic ‘logs’. It even has small fiberglass coals that glow orange when the gas flames light up. Our wood use is relegated to the fire pit at our seasonal campsite, which we try to get to every weekend. Since last fall the three empty lots to the south of our house have been cleared of brush and trees and three new spec homes fill the ‘void’ between us and our nearest neighbors. I had asked the contractor what he was going to do with the trees he pulled down. He said: “Put them in your yard if you want ’em.”
After letting them sit through the winter I’m firing up the chainsaw and cutting them up for splitting and stacking. Partly so that they’ll cure faster but also because we’ve been finding snakes in the woodpile…big snakes. One reminds me of a Water Moccasin, thick body-two to three feet long, color and markings fit but we’re told they don’t find them this far north. I’ve never seen a puff adder this big and it didn’t have a rattle. The dogs are curious; Carrie is not. She did take a good picture of it though.

Is there such a thing as a wood snake? Cutting wood with my dad and grandpa we always ran into snakes. It was inevitable. When my folks married they bought a tiny house on five-mile rd on the Northeast side of Grand Rapids, then in the late sixties when our family grew too big for it, we moved, briefly,into my grandma’s house while our new house was being built on our old lot. It wasn’t long after we moved into this house that dad decided we needed a wood burning stove in the basement to keep the gas bill down. We made regular trips north to The Woods for fuel. Early on he would borrow a trailer to haul the wood behind his Plymouth Fury. This was the car of choice for the discriminating lumberjack.The wood was piled in the back yard just waiting for the unlucky soul chosen to start the splitting process.

There I stand in the back yard, sweating through my WLAV Tshirt, shoulder length hair matted to my neck, jaw and forehead. There was no such thing as a man-bun; that guy would’ve been laughed out of the neighborhood, and I didn’t do ponytails. So I suffered. We had mauls, wedges, axes, (one and two bladed), and sledge hammers. After making pretty good headway for a couple hours dad appears with the savior of the hour: the new Chopper 1, a splitting maul with side levers built to force the wood apart once the blade bit in far enough for the levers to catch on the wood edge.

All my fifteen year old brain thought was: “Where the hell was this thing two hours ago?” I tried it out and it actually worked quite well! ‘Try it before you buy it’ would’ve given two thumbs up!
Dad said: ‘Take a break. You want a cold drink?’ I nodded as I pulled my hair back and tied a bandana across my brow. To my suprise, Dad came out with two Budweisers and tossed one over. It was ice cold and tasted great! I’m guessing ice cold anything would’ve tasted great. ” if you’re gonna work like a man you might as well have a man’s drink.” (*just don’t tell your mother).
Dad and I split the vast pile of wood and stacked it. We didn’t really talk about anything but wood and the Chopper 1, angles and force and dad cutting and stacking wood with grandpa up north. We went through two woodstoves while i still lived at home though that was only about another six years.There was a time when the only thing between me and the warmth of that woodstove was a bath mat…but that’s another story.


There hadn’t been much need to go into the old shed at the cabin. It seemed like the only things in there were an old rusted truck and a bunch of lumber, but grandma needed something. I can’t even remember what but she asked dad to see if he could find it. “I’m sure it’s in there Kenny, see if you can find it.” Dad rolled open the long door of the shed sending light into a space that rarely ever got it. He found what grandma wanted. I wanted to take a look into a shed that hardly ever saw the light of day.
There was all sorts of stuff in there! Hanging against the wall was a rusted old two-handled cross cut saw. I remember seeing movies with lumberjacks using them. “Did you ever use that, dad?” “Oh yes,” he said. “grandpa and I used that all the time before we had chainsaws.” I stared in wonder at the old saw as the door slid closed and darkness hid it from sight again.

Sawdust and woodchips flew out onto the forest floor back and forth, bouncing off the grubby oil-spotted overalls and boots of the man and boy. Clarence kept his blades sharp- He had to; the old cabin had to be heated and wood was cheaper than propane. Originally owned by a lumber company the woods were intersected by a railroad grade that ended just shy of the western border of the property. Another spur cut in from the east at the north end of the 160 acres. Both lines had been pulled up leaving only a long sloping grade, a large clearing at the north end and a few, now rusty, line spikes that are still being found today. All the wood that was fit to be logged was harvested long ago.

The woods had grown up since then. The clearing was still there and the grade still ran rail straight from the east to the west right down the center of the property. It was along the old grade that the man had parked his pick-up. As Clarence, fit and trim at thirty-eight years used the two man cross-cut saw to cut through the branches and trunk of the tree his fourteen year old son Kenny worked the other end of the saw. Once the cutting was done the boy cleared the small branches and stacked the wood in face-cord sections four foot high, eight long with precise sixteen inch pieces. Clarence pulls out his maul and wedges, splitting the larger pieces of trunk while Kenny stacks and clears the brush. The boy and man work silently, the natural sounds of wind and bird punctuated by the dull ‘thock’ of wood striking wood and the high pitched ‘ping’ of maul striking wedge. Clarence straightens up and wiping the sweat from his brow he adjusts his glasses and runs his tongue along his bottom lip. He watches his son stacking the wood with pride. The boy takes the time to stack the pieces tight and straight. Kenny notices the stillness and, looking up at his dad, wipes his face with a leather glove. No words are exchanged but Clarence reaches into the back of the truck and pulls out a couple cold sodas and points one at the boy. Kenny straightens with a smile and nods. The two sit on the tailgate of the truck and listen to the sounds of the woods and feel the hot sun on their cheeks.
The trees are taller. A different pick up sits on the railroad grade. Chainsaws and a plastic milk crate with oil and rags sits on the ground. Kenny, now forty-four years old stands next to the cut trunk of a tree. A chainsaw sits on the flat surface about waist high while he works a rattail file against the curved blade tips of the chain. “Give me four hours to cut down a tree and I’ll spend the first two sharpening my axe.” Is a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln though no one knows for sure who said it; but in this case it applies. Cutting up a tree is much easier and quicker with a sharp saw. His three sons, Mike and Kevin now teenagers, and even the five year old, Carl, engage in various tasks of hauling brush, stacking wood, and prepping logs for the blade. Clarence, now sixty-eight, lets Kenny do the cutting. Bent and aged by the life he led he is more of a consultant now. He still drives his old truck up into the woods. The boys, sitting on the tailgate for the short trip up the county road, watch the road roll underneath their feet and snicker as the yellow and white center lines slowly snake back and forth from one side of the tailgate to the other. Kenny asks his dad where they are cutting today and the old man says: “Plenty of standing dead on the grade.” Clarence points out trees and his son gets to cutting. He directs the boys on clearing brush and stacking, and he helps Kenny with measuring. He carries a stick, just an ordinary stick with notches on it. Standing to the side while his son starts the saw he bends down and lays the stick against the branch or trunk to give Kenny the measure that, after years in the woods, he doesn’t really need. And he steps away as the saw blade sends sawdust flying. The wood is stacked, saws and boxes stowed in the truck, and the boys are called back from whatever forest adventure took them away from the grade. The woods need to be checked, and the boys watch the two-track path roll beneath their feet while weeds and twigs flick at the older boys’ shoes and pantlegs as they travel from one end of the woods to the other. Driving through the open field at the north end made the boys pick up their feet. The field was full of blackberry brambles which bite and scrape even through blue jeans. Once back at the cabin the three boys carry on with various pursuits while the two men go inside. Grandma Adeline stands at the kitchen window looking out at the boys. “Get some cutting done?” Clarence responds with a “Yeh,” As he walks through to the next room. Kenny just winks at his mother. The two men sit at the dining room table with a beer and a shot of whiskey. No words are spoken. They stare into each other’s eyes and take a sip while a slow cool summer breeze catches a wind chime hanging in one of the maple trees and comes, with the music, through the window to slowly dry the sweat on their brows.

Clarence and Ken Brooks