david means | the woodcutter

1 06 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 183 | May 30, 2009

The Art & The Artists of Self Destruction, #3


By David Means

The first day back he began chopping like a maniac, going at the wood day and night—or so they say. He’d been back six years when I was old enough to notice him, and by that time he went a bit slower (at least that’s what I was told) but still split a good cord, a full cord, in about two hours, depending on what kind of wood it was and how large the tree was; he had a gas-powered wedge that halved the logs; then he threw them into place and took a good hard swap, usually just one chop was all it took, and then he’d swish them out of the way with his steel-toed boots and do another; all day, most days, seven days a week, barring only the worst kind of weather. When he stopped, there were usually dewdrops of sweat and condensation on his black beard; in cold weather, a dangling clot of ice; in the summer, there were fine little braids of red welts under the hairs and just above the skin. Prickly heat. The lumberjack shirt he wore, traditional red-and-black Pendleton of good wool, graced him deep into summer. When he killed himself—August 1, 1985—he was in the shirt, next to a fresh cord of oak stacked against his garage. His wife was out there undoing the buttons slowly to get to the wound, small and round, produced by a Teflon-coated bullet (the papers said) that eased neatly into his chest and right out, the wonders of moon-shot technology going a step further than nonstick pans (my father muttered). Theories abounded about the exact reason, but suicide being an unexplainable enigma, it didn’t take much to put most of it on Nam, on his role in the siege at Khe Sanh, on buddies lost, although the papers mentioned he was being sued for taking down a red maple on private property without permission, going right up the Jansons’ driveway (a washed gravel loop to the front of their cedar-sided ranch), tying a rope around the tree, then his pickup hook, getting the chain saw revved up, telling me to ease up on the clutch when he gave a shout (being only fourteen, I wasn’t versed in the workings of a manual shift, but I did as I was told, easing up slowly, and the truck jerked back, and the tree went down behind me with a loud, dust-clouded whomp). Before I was out of the truck’s cab, he was slicing into the trunk, getting right into the heart of the tree, which was a good 120 years old according to my ring count (later). I kept quiet about my role in his demise. It wouldn’t do to let people know that maybe it wasn’t Nam that caused him to shoot a nice, neat hole in his heart, and that maybe it was just other stuff: the value of trees being dissembled, the wonderful easing up of weight when the head of the axe left the arch and pulled him into the chop (I’d watched a million times). The threat of not being able to go into the yards of his neighbors, or the local parks where he got most of the trees, to take down excess growth, was too much for him. His lumberjack days were numbered.

[from, HARPER’S Magazine, July, 2000, and in Assorted Fire Events, …published in September [2000] by Context Books.]