Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment; chop wood, carry, water.
The December rain seemed halted by the evergreen canopy as we stepped onto the trail to Lookout Creek. The ground crunched under my rubber Wellies. “Is that hoarfrost?” I asked my husband, Marshall, and pointed at the small shelves of ice on the ground that had lifted the dirt up in patches. He did not know. But it was everywhere, this up-lifted earth, evidence of winter and solitude, of the lightest steps or no weight at all.
Our two-year-old came staggering past, bundled in layers and rain gear, her weight light enough to walk on hoarfrost without fracturing the crystal mesas. First she walked down the winding trail surrounded by evergreens, turning her body partway to lift a small red hand and lock eyes with Marshall and me, who were still crouched over the hoarfrost, and to tell us, “Come on!” as if she were a teenager. (“Have you heard of a threenager?” her pediatrician once asked me)
Behind us was a lonely volleyball court, and farther back, some low-lying rancho style buildings, the headquarters of the H.J. Andrews Forest, and 15,800 acres in the Cascades of Oregon. We are located in the side yard of a research station in the midst of a drainage basin where over a hundred experiments have taken place—northern spotted owl research, log decomposition studies, exciting new forestry management practices, avalanche studies. Some studies are fixed, and others are part of a long-term research program, a 200-year study with only a 10 percent completion.
We are like data points in a forest research project, as I was invited as a writer to participate in the Andrews Forest Long-Term Ecological Research Project. I am here to write a series of reflections, but unlike other writers who have come here, my experience is colored by the pixy laughter and red-faced tantrums of a two-year-old. I was thankful that the people in charge have allowed my family to join me; they add a special dimension. I am also a human who spends much of her life in a city in northern California, and more time than average outdoors, hiking and traveling. I can also be described as a wife, married to a self-described eco-geek.
When Marshall and I were packing our bags in San Francisco, we exchanged some dark humor. “It’ll be like Stephen King’s The Shining,” we snickered, folding turtlenecks and rolling winter socks into fat balls. “A retreat in some remote woods, perhaps some snow, an aspiring writer, a spouse, and a small child,” I giggled.
“Yeah, it’s totally the right recipe,” Marshall agreed.
But we’d keep those thoughts to ourselves, meaning I wouldn’t write about it; there would be no REDRUM in my stories, no blood baths, no flying axes. And we didn’t want to be a couple of Beavis and Buttheads. The upcoming experience in the Andrews Forest would be special. This retreat would place my writing in a cool long-term time capsule of ecological study, sponsored by the Spring Creek Project, which blends science, philosophy, and creative writing. For Marshall, this week would be a much-needed respite from life as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley, and a chance to be with his daughter for much more time than he usually has. For Genevieve it would be the first time to spend several days in the outdoors among cathedral trees and carbuncular mushrooms. She could wallow in mud, or taste minty water droplets dangling off evergreen needles.
Farther along the path was an ancient Douglas fir, with so large a girth that our family of three couldn’t link fingers, a tree so old it might have been a sapling when the Spanish conquistadors were marching across American continents in search of gold. Its bark was thick and fissured, lifted in craggy steaks up from the cambium. Light green nettings of tiny epiphytes hung in the cracks. Crinkled leaves of lichen, called deer lettuce, rooted into the trunk, dripped rain. I picked Genevieve up to by at my face-level, and we leaned towards the tree trunk. It smelled of rain, was cool to the touch, and when I looked up at the base of the tree’s canopy, a spiral of green branches far above my head, Genevieve tilted her head back and said, “Wow…”
What was it like here five hundred years ago? The valley in the Cascade Mountains was here, I imagine, and this drainage basin for Lookout Creek toward which we were headed. Many more old-growth Douglas-firs would have been here—some upwards of a thousand years old. If the largest living Douglas fir, a specimen found in the Olympic National Park of Washington, is 280 feet tall (85 meters) and has a trunk diameter of 13.5 feet (4.11 meters), might there have been many of that size? Many plants still alive might have been growing then: evergreens like western hemlock or western red cedar, and deciduous trees, broadleaf maple or alder. Cold air would still settle along the drainage basin, and icy crystals would still push up patches of dirt. And ten thousand years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene, perhaps a valley glacier filled this area, or a much larger one buried all the mountaintops of the Oregon Cascades.
There were Native Americans here too, the Kalapuya, on the western side of the Cascades. Mark Schulze, the Andrews Forest Director, believes there were no permanent villages in what is now called the Andrews Forest. “This was a seasonal use area,” he told me a few days earlier when we ran into each other in the library of the research station. “From what I understand,” he continued, “people were using this area –hunting, gathering, probably burning a bit on the high ridges.” The Kalapuya, like other Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest, relied on the old-growth forest. Trees were the source of weapons, fuel, clothing, boats, and homes.
What was it like here 150 years ago after the Gold Rush in California? The Gold Rush and its subsequent population surge toward the West Coast spawned a need for lumber, and the old-growth forests began to be logged. But the Andrews Forest was public, national forest land. “Very little logging occurred on national forest lands before and through World War Two,” wrote Fred Swanson, a researcher with forty years’ experience in the Andrews Forest, in an email during my stay at the Andrews. “The experimental forest was set up in 1948 as the Blue River Experimental Forest and was renamed to honor H.J. Andrews in the 1950s.”
The Andrews was fortunate to be designated as an experimental forest, but neighboring forests were not so fortunate. Axes, crosscut saws, and steam power worked to level the forest. We spent Christmas Day sitting in a clear cut site about three miles down the road from the research station headquarters, meditating on the uniform grove of trees replanted fifteen years ago by someone with regard for the future. There wasn’t a single snag (a dead tree that houses many critters) as a reminder of the ancient, giant trees.
As I walked down the trail toward Lookout Creek, my toes winced from the cold although they were protected by wool socks and plastic rain boots, and for winter, the weather was mild. We could’ve been presented with snow, or hail, but this year late December was drizzly with interludes of sunshine. However, a big weather system was just about to roll in, according to Mark, who happened to be the only other resident besides us at the headquarters this time of year.
We were eager to get down to Lookout Creek because we’d admired the views of mist-laced peaks from an old fire road for a mile and a half.
I straggled down the trail, jotting notes into a book while the others ran ahead.
“Ho,” I heard Marshall cry. “Look what Genevieve just found!”
There was a fire pit in the middle of a circle of benches. We were in the deserted ropes-course area for middle-school kids, as evidenced by green scaffolding around the base of several massive Douglas firs. Marshall stood to the side, looking possessed, a mishmash of Lyle Lovett’s long, oval face, and Jack Nicholson’s wide eyes and diabolical smile, his shoulders hunched up, holding aloft a sinister ax. By his feet was a rain-blackened log, its face bitten by a hundred ax strokes. Chunks of kindling lay heaped close by, half-covered by a tarp.
“Come here, baby,” I said, pulling Genevieve close. She had no idea what an ax could do. Her expression was as serene as a Zen Buddhist contemplating rocks as her gaze traveled up the long, dark wooden handle to the steel blade. Suddenly, my husband swung the ax down. Crack! A forearm-sized chunk of wood split in two, and the ax blade lodged in the battle-scarred log where the kindling had rested.
“Holy shit,” I said, my eyes still fixed on the grisly, weathered ax, a tool from a horror movie.
“More!” Genevieve screamed, jumping and clapping. Her mouth hung open in anticipation, and at the next crack, she squealed like a piggy.
“Whoa!” she hollered again as more pieces of log flipped through the air.
I took out my camera—my daughter’s generation will be overly documented—to capture the grand excitement of her response to the satisfying crack of steel on wood. My husband swung again and again, splitting wood with happy abandon. Albert Einstein once wrote, “People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results.” Sure enough, the chunks of wood falling onto the soft mulchy dirt were tangible evidence.
In the city we’d left behind, the moments often don’t feel quite real. We move short distances to get buckled inside the metal cage of a car, and drive long distances in short times to arrive at some destination, some padded room. There isn’t room for axes in the city world.
Marshall was chopping wood like a champion, adding to the amount of kindling ready to be used in a campfire. There’s a photo hanging on the wall in our forest apartment of two young scientists at a BBQ grill covered in skewers of brown mushrooms; a hatchet lies across the cutting board in front of them. People around here handle axes as deftly as we handle kitchen knives.
Genevieve and I were more excited by the moment, with every crisp thwack. Even as witnesses to wood chopping, there was a crisp reality, something immediate and raw. We were incapable of modulating our voices. My intention to meditate at the creek’s bank was temporarily forgotten.
“Shit,” Marshall grunted, one boot up as he yanked on the ax-handle, struggling to free it from a monster chunk of kindling. His struggle was sobering. His arms were akimbo and he glared at the ax handle, tilted at thirty degrees. “Think I can just leave it here, like the sword in the stone?” He peered at me under furrowed brows.
“It’s Momma’s turn,” I said, all adrenaline fired, just as he pulled the ax free.
I balanced a chunk of kindling on the great log and heard Marshall say with an element of doubt to his voice, “Do you know how to do this?”
I smirked. “I can figure it out.” I swung the ax up over my head. Axes are one of our oldest inventions; there is evidence that early man used hand-axes a million years ago. We are fascinated by simple machines—the pulley, the inclined plane, the wheel; the blade of this ax was a wedge. My fingers slid around the belly of the smooth handle, my biceps and deltoids contracting in an unfamiliar way that paradoxically felt natural, filled with potential energy.
We are also taken by myth. Marshall later told me he had images of a recent fantasy series running through his mind as he chopped, envisioning medieval style battle-axes. I was thinking of Scandinavian Thor, with the magical hammer Mjöllnir, sometimes referred to as an ax, the “the best of all the precious works,” according to Snorri Sturluson, writer of the 13th century Prose Edda. I also thought of Changó, a vibrant, powerful god of West African, Caribbean, and Roman Catholic traditions. His double-bladed ax can “create or destroy,” writes Migene González-Wippler, author of Santeria. Despite their different cultures, Thor and Changó are associated with thunder, lightning, power, and carry a strikingly similar weapon.
Goddesses also wield axes. The “labrys” or double-bladed ax, of Crete “originally belonged to the Mother Goddess,” claims Margaret C. Waites in American Journal of Archaeology. Greek goddesses like Demeter, Aphrodite, and Artemis have been depicted with axes. The Amazons, those mythic warrior-women, carried axes in their arsenal.
But perhaps it is simple physics, the science of the swing that is most meaningful. After all, the gods are only figments of my imagination, while the reality is simply the tool in motion. It is the ax’s descent that excites me most, the kinetic energy. The mechanical advantage of a wedge becomes actualized when the blade hit its target. Forces shoot from the blunt “butt” end down its head and become violent perpendicular force, moving outward, splitting even a great log.
Half a lifetime ago I hopped freight trains, even through the Cascade Mountains. I was a survivalist and a punk rocker, never without a pocketknife, a flashlight, a bandana, matches, or maps covered in plastic packing tape. I felt unconquerable, and I believed that I needed to carry a weapon—like a “smiley,” a bandana tied to a lock—although I might never use it. I married a man who has a thing for knives and guns, and so I have shot his 9-millimeter Sig P226, hitting a paper target with surprising accuracy.
I located my daughter, making sure Marshall had corralled her. She was entranced. Twenty-four hours later, her paternal grandmother, Grammy, will email that she remembers the “magic” of watching her uncle split wood in Mississippi, sixty-three years ago. History repeated itself when Marshall and his brother watched their father split wood. My mother owns an ax, too, and I used to watch her split logs for our fireplace in San Francisco, her tongue in a taco-shape as she grimaced and swung.
I took aim. My vision narrowed into a tan triangle marking the top of the kindling. I sucked cool forest air into my lungs. My scientific-minded husband would say speed is key, that kinetic energy depends on the square of its velocity, meaning the faster, the better. Double your speed, quadruple the energy. Be fast and accurate. Hit the center, I silently chanted, hit the center.
Crack! Two sticks of kindling flipped through the air. “Yeah!” I cried.
“Whoa!” hollered my daughter, wiggling against her father’s extended leg that kept her back. He had a proud smile on his face, one eye glancing through the viewfinder of our camera-video recorder. This would go down in family history.
A second time, I lifted my ax and focused on another chunk of kindling. This felt great; it felt real. In this fantastic nanosecond, I was a character in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, splitting great pyramids of logs for a grueling winter. W.C. Fields argued, “The nation needs to return to the colonial way of life, when a wife was judged by the amount of wood she could split,” and this was my moment of truth.
I swung through space, a beautiful arc. Man anthropomorphizes the ax—it has a “heads,” a “beard,” and an “eye.” Its blade bites. The handle has a “belly,” and the lightly angled portion at the bottom of the handle is a “throat.” Crack! The ax chomped the kindling, dead center.
But this time, it kept going. The ax was a wild thing out of control, falling swiftly with my hands still glued around it. I watched the bright blade slice into my thin rubber boot, its “heel” lodging into the meat of my forefoot. I squealed and tossed the ax down.
I looked up, panic-struck. “Turn off the camera!”
Marshall was still filming, but he quickly stopped.
“The ax hit my boot.” I kneeled, gently prying off my boot. A red rose bloomed across the top of my baby blue wool sock, and I pressed a hand on it. I imagined delicate white bones severed in and veins cut like penne pasta. “Get Genevieve, and then help me.”
I didn’t wait as Marshall tried to make sense of what had happened, and I hightailed down the trail as fast as possible without galloping on my wounded foot. Genevieve pitched a tantrum behind me, but I was already squishing across the volleyball field, thankful for the icy puddles lessening the pain.
I banged on Mark Schulze’s apartment door, but he was in the field. What to do? My cell phone was useless without reception, and what good would calling do anyway? I sat in a deck chair, put my foot up, applied pressure, and waited for Marshall and Genevieve to catch up.
No longer than half an hour later, Mark drove his car down a curvy, quiet road littered with wet maple leaves and chunks of debris that had tumbled down the upper escarpment. Beside us was a long, empty reservoir, a giant cleft in the foot of the earth which resembled the white, gaping wound under my sock. Marshall and Genevieve would be following in our car after packing diapers.
“Please don’t tell anyone about this,” I asked Mark, who had a reassuring smile on his bearded face. My retreat was crumbling like dry leaves as I thought of my failure to get to the creek’s edge, and that the wound might be bad enough to necessitate an early return to the city. “I’m so embarrassed,” I admitted, and Mark kept his eyes on the road. I told Mark that I hadn’t listened to my husband’s advice on the art of wood chopping. We both laughed, easing the tension.
No blood had seeped through the Ace bandage covering the gauze. This was a good sign. Perhaps all would be well. I was not in pain, for the adrenaline of the accident felt like a natural dose of amphetamines, and the cold air had numbed my toes. A captive, Mark listened to me rattle on about the resilience of the human body, or on the other hand, how a little wound can change everything. Suddenly you focus on what you cannot do anymore. “If I could survive a caesarean,” I concluded with a wry grimace, “I can survive this.” Mark looked at me and smiled, nodding his head.
It was nighttime and raining hard when Marshall drove us back to the Andrews Forest from the McKenzie River Clinic, where Genevieve had received shiny stickers after she threw down several wooden puzzles and flipped a few Good Housekeeping magazines through the air. The NP was my kind of medical practitioner, experienced in wound stitchery, and a believer in alternative healing. “You got some lavender flowers for Christmas, you said? Lavender oil would be helpful in a few days. But I’d also take antibiotics starting tonight, and let’s give you a tetanus shot.”
She and her assistant had seen worse: logging accidents. “We’re talking about chainsaws.”
Loggers have a grisly motto worth heeding: “Cut and get cut.”
One flick of a switch and gas-powered heat filled our tiny apartment. Thankfully, we were here to stay through the week, and the writing retreat had not fallen apart.
“Mama hurt her foot,” Genevieve said in wide-mouthed gasps, her potbelly pressed against the couch, blue eyes gazing at me. She had one hand on my well-wrapped foot while the other stroked my forearm. The rich, sweet smell of brownies coming from the oven, some destined for delivery to Mark.
“I’m okay now,” I said in a soft voice, and then picked up my daughter, breathing in the sandalwood scent of her hair. Good health is precious, and it’s easy to lose. Just six months ago, Genevieve touched the back of her hand to a hot barbecue grill and went to the ER. Marshall told me about plinking golf balls with a .22 rifle when a bullet ricocheted off the ball and flew straight towards his face, luckily just grazing his forehead. How quickly and unexpectedly a fun moment involving potential and kinetic energy can turn deadly serious. Marshall described sledding with his brother when they were boys, careening down a snow-covered embankment above a soccer field, when his brother slammed into a hidden bench, breaking bones and damaging his spleen. Thirty-five years ago my father went diving in the Caribbean Sea, something he adored, and perhaps in part because of a stupid mistake—jamming weights in his pockets instead of a quick-release weight belt—he drowned. It is a fragile miracle then to be alive; if only we did not have to have accidents to remind us.
Out there among layered, dynamic ecosystems, among cold creeks rushing towards the river, among frozen puddles on steep mountain roads, among the quiet giants of old-growth trees, life feels acutely real. The wilderness imposes a heightened awareness of the natural world. It lives by the law of science: physics, anatomy, biology, ecology, and more. The city, full of comforts and conveniences, holds a different energy, though it follows scientific laws just the same. The smallest nick could become a deadly infection in the wilderness if there were no medicine for the wound. John Krakauer in Into the Wild describes a young man, Christopher McCandless, as “rash and incautious by nature” who made “a careless blunder” of eating a plant with a toxic mold which cost him his life in the wilds of Alaska . The wilderness illuminates life’s delicate balance.
We should meditate on our ancestors and their beliefs when entering the wilderness. The Native Americans of this area lived in balance with the old-growth forest, and had identified medicines growing around them. There are several hundred plants in the Pacific Northwest that Native Americans used for cuts, burns, infections, fevers, hemorrhaging, and numerous other ailments. Even to leave civilization briefly, one might do well to seek knowledge from the traditions of native peoples. In the space between myth and reality, between warm houses and space in wild forests, and among ancestors from all over the globe, there are many lessons to be learned—in my case it was humility, patience, and respect.
“All of Changó’s legends,” writes González-Wippler, “and the central theme of his cult, is power, be it procreative, authoritative, destructive, medicinal, or moral.” Sitting with my damaged foot up on the writing desk in the apartment, a large ice pack draped over the Ace bandage, I look outside the window. Rain is pouring down, tiny streams shooting off the ripples of the roof. There is a short lawn of moss and tiny ferns before the forest rises up, a shaggy wall of evergreens. If my gaze could penetrate the trees, I would look straight down to the ax. If any old gods are present, they’ve not treated me so badly. The ax cleaved that kindling before it chomped into my foot. If I keep the physics of the swing in mind, next time I try to chop wood, I won’t be so damned arrogant.
Tomorrow, if possible, I will hobble down to Lookout Creek for a new kind of meditation. “As metaphor it carries us into new realms, and it changes our perceptions, our being,” the feminist Mary Daly writes about the ax. “Used metaphorically, it is an instrument of change, of metamorphosis.” Maybe so. Though I will not pick up that ax which lives along that trail, I might look at it as my husband first found it, leaning up against the woodpile, with far less hubris and much more humility.
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Jessica Erica Hahn was born on an old ship off the coast of Florida to globe-trotting parents, but spent much of her life in San Francisco, where she still lives with her nuclear family. Her writing can be found in several literary journals, and she has two self-published books from the 1990s, Transient Ways and Elysian Fields: A Fucked Up Love Story. The novel she's writing about seafaring hippies just won the Clark-Gross Award.
Q: Can you tell us the motivation behind the piece?
A: "Chop Wood, Carry Water" was inspired by a week-long writing residency in the Western Cascades of Oregon, funded by the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word; the Andrews Forest Research Program, and the U.S. Forest Service. A stipulation was to write reflections about three specific locations, one being Lookout Creek, which is mentioned in my essay.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve been given? Did you heed the advice? Why or why not?
A: After years of self-destructive tendencies and egotism, Stephen King wrote that the job of writing "starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." I like the mindfulness of art serving life, but I also appreciate the image of a drunken, blitzed out Stephen King sitting at a huge desk in the middle of his room like the tyrannical captain on a doomed ship.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: Motherhood has influenced everything about my writing. I am writing and publishing more than ever before, because a heightened awareness of time and life motivates me to rise before dawn and take pen to paper.
Q: How do you organize your home library?
A: My books are arranged mostly by subject matter and strategically located throughout the house in glass fronted cases and all on shelves—in the living room, bedroom, office, both bathrooms, the walk-in closet that serves as a baby nursery, and the kitchen. I have special collectible sections of mythology and folklore, freight trains and hobos, biology and ecology, travel, astronomy and earth science, and literature throughout the ages. I also have comics, zines, and about half a million picture books.