October was a busy month.
We put the garden to bed which meant we dug out our potatoes and harvested our herbs and turned over the soil and got it ready for next year. Our lettuce and kale and cabbage we’d harvest and ate as the season progressed so there was none of that to store. All in all, the garden had been a moderate success.
“It’s all about the soil,” Arnie kept telling Meg and me throughout the short summer growing season. “We had good soil in there. Next year it’ll be even better.”
“Thanks so much for helping us with it,” I told him time and time again that summer. The day he and Jack had helped build the garden frame and we’d put in the rich, black soil mixed with horse manure stood out in my mind. It’d been great to work with them.
Our cabin had a root cellar and that’s where we put the potatoes and the herbs were hung in the kitchen. The effect was to make our little cabin smell fragrant and homey.
School was going well for Andy. He loved being around the other kids and made friends easily. It was good to see him learning to get along with other kids his age, not just his sister and their friends Sam and Willow.
My day for assisting was Monday, so we drove down together and I helped out and we drove home together. Volunteering was a decision I never regretted. It was fun working with the kids, twenty-four first graders in all. Mrs. Schaffhausen (I never could get used to calling her ‘Rose’ like she wanted me) ran a tight ship. We had learning activities all day long: word study (reading), math (learning ‘our numbers’), technology (using school-issued iPads for learning activities and even some games), along with art, music, story-time, recess, and lunch. Class was from 9:30 to 3:30 and the time went by really fast.
Meg continued working with Allie who was now four years old and Sam who was also four and Willow who was now five and could have gone to kindergarten but Amber wanted her to be home-schooled by Meg and that was fine with her. And us.
Meg also continued editing for Charlotte’s Press and I continued working three days a week at the gas station. In the back of our minds was the as yet unanswered question: What were we going to do when our lease ran out at the end of December? Our landlady had intimated that we could continue renting if we wanted to. “I’ve had no takers on selling the damn thing,” was the way she put it, referring to our cabin. But Meg and I still didn’t know what we were going to do. We still had a couple of months to decide so we put the decision on the back burner.
Until then, the one thing we did decide because we knew we’d have to, was that we’d have to have firewood wood for heat. So that’s what I did. With the help of Jack and Arnie. They set aside some time from their busy schedule and met me at 7:00 am at the cabin the first week of October.
“Okay, buddy. Let’s get you set for the winter,” Jack said pulling up with his pickup. The morning was crisp and cool, in the high thirties. He wore Carhart overall over an insulated undershirt that poked up from his red and black checked wore shirt. He wore knee-high leather boots and a black wool watch cap. I had on jeans, hunting boots, long underwear shirt, flannel shirt, hooded sweatshirt, and an insulated vest. On my head, I wore a stocking hat like Jack’s.
He gave me the once over and grinned.
“Good. It’s a good day to cut wood. Nice and cool. Believe me, you’ll work up a sweat in no time.”
I grinned. “Sounds good to me.”
He pointed. “Arnie’s driving the big truck.”
The big truck was the loading truck with the claw crane on it that they used in their pulp wood business. Arnie tooted the horn and stuck his head out the window. “All set?” he waved.
I waved back. “I am.”
Jack climbed in the big pickup. “You can ride shotgun with me. Let’s go.”
I climbed into the warm cab and off we went.
Their permit to cut was in the Chippewa Forest about ten miles north and west of Esker. They worked with the Department of Natural Resources to do what was called selective cutting. The DNR would identify areas in the forest that needed to be thinned out and Jack and Arnie did the rest. The idea was to manage the forest for sustained growth and not clear cut the timber like happened with many other pulp woodcutters.
As we drove, Jack pointed to a cup holder between us. There’s coffee if you want. There were two large coffees from down the road at the gas station where I worked. I gratefully took a sip.
“No problem.” Jack turned onto the highway and we were off. “So what are you going to do?” He asked coming up to speed, the truck humming along.
I’d been looking out the window, sipping my coffee, and watching the forest speed by. “What do you mean?”
“About staying up here. Linn told me you and Meg’s lease was up at the end of December.”
“Well, what are you going to do.”
The thing I liked about Jack, and Arnie, too, for that matter is that there were no-nonsense guys. If something needed to be done, say build a garden frame for our garden last summer, they just did it. They’d talk about it, sure, but it got done. Same with their business. If they had a stand of trees to thin, they’d work long hours to get the job completed. Only when the last tree was cut, hauled out of the forest, loaded onto the truck, and driven to the pulp mill would they consider sitting back and resting. I admired that in them.
“Meg and I are talking about it.”
He glanced at me, turning off the highway and onto a dirt road, one of the hundreds if not thousands in the country. “December is only a couple of months away.”
Looking at it from Jack’s perspective, he and Linn would have already decided what to do. Probably months ago. I had an idea. “What would you do,” I asked. “If you were Meg and me?”
He slowed the pickup and pointed the big truck straight down the road and was quiet for a minute, sipping his coffee and thinking. Finally, he said, “Well, it’s your decision you know.”
“Of course. I know that. I’m just wondering what you and Linn would do.”
“You moved up here to get away from the pandemic, right?”
“But the pandemic is still here.” He waved his hand. “It’s all over.”
He was right. As many people had died in 2021 as in 2020. “Yeah, I know.”
He glanced at me again. “So, from my perspective, living up here can’t be about the pandemic anymore.”
I’d recently read an article about people like us. The article poked fun at what they called ‘The Escapees’. People who moved away from the city to get away from the pandemic leaving home and friends behind. People like us.
“I hear you,” I said. I did, too. It was what Meg and I were grappling with.
Jack waved his arm. “I love it up here. So does Linn. So does Sam. It’s our home. I could never leave it. We were born and raised here.” He turned to me. “Our friends are here.”
I had to ask. “Do you think we did a wrong thing by moving up here?”
He sipped his coffee and slowed the truck to turn to the right. He drove another hundred yards and took a left. We were deep in the pine forest now. The sun was coming up over the trees and the sky was clear blue, with not a cloud in it.
“Do I think you made a mistake?” He looked at me. “No, I don’t. You did what you thought you needed to do. What was best for your family, especially Andy and Allie.” I liked Jack a lot. I admired the confident way how he lived his life. Linn, too. They were what I used to call ‘salt of the earth’ people. People close to the land. People who were independent-minded and could fend for themselves. Way different than me.
“I appreciate that.”
He turned again onto another dirt road. “That being said,” he grinned at me. “I’m not you. And you still have to decide what to do.” He paused and turned onto a two-track road that led deeper into the forest. The trees were close to us on each side. I turned. Arnie’s big truck barely fit. But it did. I had to admit, the guys knew what they were doing.
We drove another quarter of a mile to a clearing. Jack parked the pickup and got out and joined Arnie. I stood next to them and listened to them strategize what they called ‘The Cut’. Then, off we went. We drove the pickup about another quarter mile into the woods. We got out and the guys pointed out the trees they were going to cut and they cut them down. My job was to use my chainsaw and trim the branches of the downed trees. We were cutting birch because it was the best wood to heat our stove with.
When the trees were cut and trimmed, we hauled them to the pickup and loaded them in the back. Then we drove the pickup to the big truck and Arnie used the crane to load the logs onto the flatbed. We stopped occasionally for water and once for a big lunch that Linn had fixed of fried chicken, ham sandwiches on her homemade bread, and blueberry muffins made with the blueberries we’d picked last month with Amber. By the end of the day, the big truck was fully loaded.
We took a minute to catch our breath and check out our work.
“There are about ten chords of wood there, Lee,” Arnie said, pointing to the big truck. The arm of the crane was resting over the top of it to hold it in place.
“Should last you all winter,” Jack added, giving me a knowing smile. The implication was clear, the words unspoken. If you’re still here.
We had all stripped down to just our undershirts, and even they were soaked in sweat. But we’d worked as a team, and we’d gotten the job done.
“Thanks so much, you guys,” I said, pulling my flannel shirt on. Now that we had stopped working, we were cooling off. It was about forty-five degrees and the forecast was for frost overnight. I was glad to get the wood. We’d unload it tomorrow and I’d start cutting it up and getting ready for winter.
I wasn’t sure what we were going to be doing about moving up north for good or moving back to the city, but I did know one thing. We’d need firewood soon for heat. Tomorrow I had to get busy and start cutting it.
About the author
Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in nearly four hundred online and print publications. His collection of short stories “Resilience” was published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing. Additional stories and publications can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.
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