I began the afternoon by taking the chainsaw down from off the hook on which it lives. It had been some time since I last showed it any love, and it was apparent. There was slack in the chain; the teeth were dull and glazed with dark patches of burned-on resin and what-not. The air filter held a thick yellowed encrustation of sawdust that must surely have been choking it something fierce...
I filled it with fuel and oil, then marked two ‘index’ teeth on the chain with marker, one cutter on each side. These let me know when I’ve finished with the sharpening. It takes me just a little over six-hundred strokes of the file to sharpen the saw; five for each gullet, five for each top plate, times 61 cutting teeth; three-hundred, more or less with the round file, then three hundred, more or less, with the flat file. Check the bar for burrs, adjust the tension, we are ready to go.
The day of Christmas Eve was of a part with the few preceding days and many of the following days: monochromatic, damp, leaden, and warm beyond all reason. We took our tools and went into the grey woods for some trail work, the type of work you can only really do when the leaves are off the trees and the vines and stickers are more subdued than in spring or summer. Mary has been working for some time on a new trail connecting the switchback to the cleared areas along the power line right-of-way on the east flank of our little hillside. She has taken many of the vines and more treacherous undergrowth down to the ground; what had been simply a chaotic tangle of brush now looks more like a mature forest.
I begin with some marginally unrelated business, the cleaning up of broken rotting trees dropped in bad places when the power line crew came through a few years back. I’m dismayed to think it’s taken me this long to get around to cleaning up after them, but there it is. I crab down the steep, viney slope sideways, pausing every few steps to make another cut. Overcut; undercut; lock the sawbrake; move on down the line with the idling saw. The moldering oak trunk that had been propped up on the big rock is now in contact with the dirt along its whole length and can finally become one with the rocky soil. To my surprise, we are serenaded by the calls of spring peepers roused from their winter drowsiness by the incongruous weather. It feels and smells like April here in the woods on Christmas Eve afternoon.
There are a handful of different tree trunks splayed across the right-of-way just north off the switchback. Some, by now, are merely rich red humus impersonating a log; others are fresher, stronger, harder, almost worth keeping as firewood if it weren’t so far to haul them up the hill. I take my time and clear the junction so we can move easily from the old trail onto the new trails we have begun.
Some of the work is clearing the fallen trees, and some is felling the dead and broken trees that shamble through this little grove. Not sure why it took such a hard hit a few years back, but all of our cedars are marked by the snows of 2009-2010, and not a one stands true in here. The pines fared better, but they’re just not meant to have long lives. I fell the bent and broken, then limb them with loppers or the small power saw or the chainsaw when necessary, then buck them to manageable lengths we can use to stabilize and mark the trail’s edges.
Mary places the freshly cut logs to suit her plan, carrying those she can lift and flipping those she can’t end-over-end to their appointed resting spot. With luck, they’ll trap debris moving down the hillside and make the trail more stable and obvious. The pines will rot away in a couple of years; the cedars, if we’re lucky, may stay there for five or six years before all that will remain is their gnarly heartwood core stripped of all its softer, fragrant bright pink outer wood. And yeah, they're not really 'cedars,' they're Eastern junipers.
The vines and stickers fight us every inch of the way. This particular part of our hillside is replete with greenbrier, a nasty vine of unbelievable tensile strength equipped with vicious thorns which clearly inspired barbed wire. Greenbrier is nearly impossible to break once it exceeds a diameter of about 3/16”, and can hardly be pulled from the crown of a tree or uprooted from the earth once established. Greenbrier will shred your clothes and rip your skin bloody, trip you without a second glance. On the bright side, according to some old mountain man in one of the Foxfire Books, eating greenbrier shoots will help you live forever. Though I’m not convinced that’s a reasonable trade for the nuisance they pose.
I work my way up the nascent trail to where Mary is working, and have mostly given up the chainsaw for hand tools at this point. But I find a few annoying stumps and stubs of things we cut in the summer that are nasty trip hazards, so I fire it up and take them down as close to ground level as I can without trashing the chain. Then I remember the large autumn olive I had pruned back to a single twelve foot stem during the fall. I had been meaning to finish it off the next time I had the saw out, so why not. Three or four cuts, and it is no more. Then there are the rotting pine trunks, the remnants of a couple of trees that Hurricane Sandy dropped across the trailhead a few years back. They are about a foot and a half in diameter where we want them cut, and my fatigue and poor judgment gets the better of me; I manage to get the saw pinched in the kerf at the very moment it runs out of fuel.
At this point I take notice of the western sky. It is slate grey and moody. But all day the weather has been a weird mix of things. Fog, mist, brief respites, then sprinkles, rain, basically just water randomly shifting among phases. The greyness moves steadily towards the east, overtaking half the sky. But around sunset and into twilight, it briefly clears and I think I see some stars. At darkness, the clouds have returned, and when the full moon rises featureless through the skeletal trees the white sky seems brighter than it was all day long.
Thinking of Clement Moore, I awake in the night and look out over the lawn. There was no new-fallen snow, but the luminous sky allowed me to see every little detail in the yard as though it were ‘day-for-night.’ I stood for some time with the back door open and the warm night air flowing gently around me. It was silent save for the occasional dripping off the eaves, and the teasing caress of the night breeze ebbing and flowing into the room finally raised the goosebumps on my skin. I slide the door closed and try to defy the glowing sky and go back to sleep.
The afternoon of Christmas Day plays out similarly. We go back to work on the trail, picking up where we left off, and make good progress. I was able to brute-force the saw free from its trap, and reduce the remnants of the fallen pines to manageable chunks that Mary can incorporate to the stump designs already in place. By the end of several hours of woods work, it has finally settled on raining steadily and seriously. Our jeans and t-shirts are long past soaked through, yet our gentle exertions have kept us comfortable, even breaking an honest sweat. And while being soaked in the woods in December for hours generally means hypothermia, we are eager for a hot shower when we get up to the house, if only to get clean and get the stink off.
Again at twilight, day and night, light and dark exchange places uncertainly and ineffectually in a feckless pas-de-deux. The light never quite seems to go away; the dark never quite seems to come in full. The glowing night just splits the difference with the glowing moon hiding behind the wall of cloud. Only the water, every changing its capricious form, remains constant.