Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Day in the Bottomland

   On a chilled morning near the end of December we drag on our thickest clothes and outsize leather gloves. We’re going to cut firewood for my great-grandparents’ monster wood stove (which keeps their tiny house at a constant temperature of roughly 150 degrees). We drive to Granny and Pa’s house (miles deep in the backcountry), which is surrounded by mountains of rusting junk and the remnants of about ten ancient automobiles. Granny, in her pink knitted bonnet, watches us from a tiny back window as we drive 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 are heading.
   The four-minute journey is a constant barrage of jolts, and the windshield wipers vainly attempt to clear the glass of the constant sprinkle as we slide our way downhill. Mom’s 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 brace ourselves for impact as we jerk, bounce, and jar our way down into it and up the other side.
   Turning to the left we come in sight of Uncle Gayle, who has 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’re out of the pickup we can hear its rattling roar and the cracking of wood as the iron wedge cuts through half a century of hard red oak like butter. Beside the splitter is a pile of fresh-cut firewood—growing larger by the second.
   We get our marching orders and set to work. Everyone grabs a giant piece and pitches 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 is 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 is still out here in the field he once cultivated—with the cold drizzle dripping off the end of his nose. We begin 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 is heaped high we slam the doors and rattle back up the steep hill, through the cavernous ruts, and to the house where we back up to the front porch. There isn’t much room for wood there, but once we remove a washing machine and freezer there is only one refrigerator and two more freezers left to take up space. We start heaping the wood high on one end. The reddish pieces are oddly shaped, some torn and mutilated by the splitter so that they resemble 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 get back into the spirit of loading. The camaraderie is contagious, and we laugh more than anything else. Jokes and witticisms fly back and forth over the rumble of the splitter, and we tacitly compete to see who can toss wood the fastest. We roll huge stumps over to Uncle Gayle on our hands and knees, then watch for a moment in silent wonder as he moves them into position and the blade comes slicing down, narrowly missing his fingers every time.
   Another two trips and we start singing—old gospel tunes that seem just right for the occasion. We slip into an off-key but enthusiastic rendition of a Garth Brooks song as we tumble our way through the creek ditch once more, then pile out of the old Dodge for yet another load. Almost before we know it we’ve done five loads, the porch is full, and my breakfast of Pop Tarts long-gone. It’s time to head over to Aunt Lynda’s for some warm, cheesy chili dogs.
   It’s a great feeling to strip off our grimy, damp clothes and step inside the cozy house. Lunch is filling and delicious, and as we sit around the table munching on the last of the Christmas candy we can rest assured that there’s been a job well done.   

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