The problem, clearly, was the cold. The old lodge on the Beaverkill in which we planned to spend the winter was built in the 1920s, before the rising cost of oil created the need for three-paned glass and modern insulation. By today’s standards the once four- season lodge was now at best a summer home. There was a furnace of sorts, built for coal and later converted to burn oil at less than 40 percent efficiency. And the fireplace, a great stone maw that devoured all the fire’s heat and a good deal more besides, was an even greater liability. When the wind blew across the chimney’s mouth, it was like a giant pulling on a corncob pipe, and unless the flue was tightly shut, the pages of your book would flutter in the draw.
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A wood stove seemed to be the answer.
We found a used one quickly enough, a friend’s donation, its rusted interior still serving as the lodging for two mice and a decade’s worth of shop debris. The mice crept gullibly into Havahart traps set with peanut butter (the rodents’ bait of choice) and were bused to a lakeshore some miles to the east.
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The wood was another matter. There was no shortage on the lot: its forty-odd acres were thick with deadfall and standing maple, beech, and other hardwood, seasoned upright and ready to be felled, split, and stacked. But the bucksaw–a museum piece of my father’s childhood, still hanging in the toolroom and sharp enough despite its years –could hardly keep up with the demand of the cold months ahead, which was estimated to be six or eight cords. When our friend the stove donor threw in the offer of a chain saw for the season, I readily accepted.
A chain-saw operator can fell and section a tree for splitting in a fraction of the time required with ax and manual saw. Hard work, of course, was part of the appeal of the place, but we had no hydraulic splitter. All work with wedge and maul would still be done by hand. By my reckoning, splitting six or eight cords over the coming months would constitute an adequate amount of outdoor labor. Sure, I said, I’ll borrow your saw.
The chain saw holds a particular position in the average suburban- bred psyche. It wasn’t an aspect of daily life in the town of my childhood, where firewood arrived in the back of a dump truck, paused briefly on the back porch, and eventually went into the fire.
Instead the tool was a film prop. Who can erase the image of the man-child in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? The tool performs a grisly task in Scarface–Naow zee leg, hunh? –and is given a walk- on part in many other movies. Hollywood has branded the chain saw as an embodiment of psychosis and unbridled mayhem. And the machine provides its own sound effects–a roar almost as terrifying and aggressive as images of the blade in contact with flesh.
The chain saw’s portrayals in legend do little to allay one’s sense of its inherent malevolence. The tale of the logger pinned beneath a fallen tree of impossible diameter, forced to cut one or both legs off with the tool and then drag himself, like Monty Python’s Black Knight, legless through thirty miles of icy woods, is subject to infinite and often epic variation.
A new bar and chain were required for the beat-up saw, so I took it to the saw dealer, a neighbor who works out of his home. On his mantelpiece stood a row of gleaming figures, each holding high a golden laurel wreath. I read the engraved plaques on marble bases: First Place, County Chainsaw Competition, 1987. Second Place, Third Place, First Place, 1988, 1989, 1990. Chain-saw trophies from one end of his mantelpiece to the other.
“All won with this saw right here. The one I work with.” He indicated a large German model sitting smugly in its open case.
He produced a stack of calendars, each month a different saw, a different champion. He opened one to reveal the present world champ in the custom class. The man held a modified saw the size of a Yugo, huge exhaust pipes sweeping back, the bar three-quarters through a horizontal log. Smoke and sawdust filled the atmosphere behind the champion. Sweat ran down his arms.
“Twenty-inch-diameter pine,” the dealer said.
“How long did he take to make the cut?”
“Two seconds. At the outside.”
He looked down at the pictured saw with unconcealed awe and shook his head.
“Nothing like it. I tell you, you should go to one of these saw competitions. It’ll change your life.”
With the new bar and chain came a thin booklet on chain-saw handling, a welcome document that I read carefully twice before setting hand to saw. It warned of the physics of the beast –the infamous kickback, caused by several possible circumstances but most notably the tip’s catching on another surface. This can send the machine careering up and into a face or throat, its power diverted from the chain into the body of the saw. Other possibilities, less vivid but still formidable, were laid out simply, the precautions to be taken clear. To clarify the potential of kickback, the saw dealer had zealously dealt me another anecdote, this one with the legitimacy of a professional source.
An acquaintance of his stopped one evening to cut up a tree lying dead by the side of the road. He worked quickly in the dimming light, eager to get home, and didn’t see the burl waiting for his blade. With a quick jerk the saw kicked back and fell to the ground from his hands. That was close, he said to himself, and reached down to continue the job. Then he felt the warmth from the severed carotid artery in his torn throat, and he lay down on the roadside to die. The next moment he reconsidered–there were children, a young wife–and with a balled-up rag pressed against the wound he tried to make it into town. He chanced to come up behind an off- duty ambulance and was saved. By the time they got him stitched up, he had lost more than half his blood.
I finished the safety booklet and set out with heavy tread for the woodpile. Wearing shatterproof glasses, stout orange silencers, and rawhide gloves, I felt underprepared for an event that seemed to warrant a great heaume, hauberk, and greaves. I started the saw with a tug, ready for a kickback to beeline for my vitals. Spared evisceration in the starting, I poised for the first cut while the engine warmed. Several moments passed. Perhaps I should move the woodpile into the garage first, I mused, what with the coming of rain . . . Coward! Make the damn cut! The teeth nibbled delicately on the bark. Small chips flecked against my boots. The manual had advised that I operate at maximum rpm to reduce the possibility of kickback. With the trigger clenched and the engine howling at full throttle, the teeth took another taste. Bare wood gleamed; the dust blew golden on my pant cuffs. I allowed the saw to take long, steady gulps of the seasoned beech, snarling, vibrating deep into my upper arm, deceptively still, descending slowly and easily through the narrow width
The section tumbled off into the leaves and the saw took a breath. I released the trigger. Hum-a-ding-ding-ding-a-ding-ding–it idled pleasantly like any healthy two-stroke motorcycle engine. I examined the chain, now still and wet with oil. The dust that had gathered where the chain slinks into the machine’s innards was wet and gummy, like sedimenting grass on the bottom of a lawn mower.
Soon the pile was cut to length, the weapon more comfortable, if still unwelcome, in the hand. With the light step of a man who has cheated death, I stacked the hour’s quick work and made it back inside as the first raindrops fell. The stove was fed for the night.
In the weeks to come I would tame the saw, learn its nature, acknowledge the enormous boost in productivity. I raced the stove and soon outstripped it. The woodpiles climbed faster than they could be devoured. Trees fell by the dozens, suddenly. Deadfall simply disappeared.
And now the fear of the machine is gone, leaving only the respect required for safe use. The chain saw is no longer a film prop but a simple tool that has saved hours of hard work.
And how I hate the thing: its roar, its stink, its jarring vibration, its very presence a transgression in the quiet of the woods. Perhaps most of all I dislike its efficiency. I now understand the mulish refusal of Tolstoy’s serfs to give up their antiquated tools. It’s more than a question of aesthetics, of an offended ear or nose. Nor is it simply stubbornness–that what is new must be worse. I suppose it’s the intuitive awareness that what relieves us of our labor removes us from our lives. We grow more frail and dim-witted with each invention that outstrips us. It is this sense of robbery, of loss, that makes us cringe at technology’s advance.
And yet the bucksaw hangs in the garage. We simply need the wood.