The Reset of Oak
For many, Spring is for cleaning. For me, Fall is for a reset. Fall brings sensory memories back to my mind. Whether it be the sounds of a flock of migrating Canada Geese or the colors of changing leaves. The smell of fresh split oak wood sends me back to the mid-1970s again. Back to Waterville, Wisconsin and my parent's home. You see, in our household, we always had wood burning in the fall and winter. Whether it was from the wood-burning stove that heated our entire first floor, or the two fireplaces - one in our den and the other in the living room.
At this point in my life, my father and I were living on separate poles inside the same house. I loved hearing music with an electric guitar while my dad hated any music with a guitar. I wore faded, big-bell blue jeans, a ripped up, olive drab army jacket and had long, gangly hair. I was interested in getting high and meeting girls and sadly, those were my only interests at that time.
My dad wore Sansabelt pants, an ironed white shirt, tweed jacket, and a derby cap. His recreation was drawing in his office in our basement while smoking Borkum Riff pipe tobacco and leaving an eye-level haze throughout the entire level. I called his music "ether music" and used to say it put people to sleep. He called my music "crap." Made for morons who had no schooling or knowledge of reading or writing music, unlike the great big band composers he cherished. So, as you can imagine, we didn't talk much during those days and when we did, it wasn't very civil.
I hated having to do chores on the weekends. Hated it with a passion especially because my dad would awaken early to start work on the 25 acres my parents owned in Waterville. I'd be sleeping off the Friday night party I'd had the night before and around 8am I'd hear my mother yelling up the staircase, "You better get up, your father is waiting on you outside!" As I lay there, saying to myself how much I hated my parents, I could picture my dad trying to split the wood from a fallen tree alone. Cussing as he threw logs and getting more furious by the minute. I'd rush down the hill to the wooded area below our house and there I'd find him sawing away. "I was wondering if you were ever going to get up" he'd yell at me above the buzz of the smoking chainsaw. I'd shake my head and attempt to split the freshly cut logs with a maul and sledgehammer the best I could with fogged senses and lack of agility. Within minutes, the jacket would have been shagged off and hung on a nearby tree. I'd be sweating and breathing heavily as I swung the sledgehammer high in the air and then pulled my entire body towards the earth with a powerful slam. The wood would split on impact and two pieces would almost explode to the left and right.
After about an hour, the chainsaw would stop and we'd both sit on a log and rest. The smell of that fresh oak was a wonderful smell. An earthy smell, like that of a good glass of 30-year old Scotch. Dad would start off breaking the silence with his plan on what we needed to do with this fresh cut. Where we'd stack it, how we'd store it and when we'd need it was all playing out in his mind. By now, thanks to the sweat and exertion of the labor we had been committing, I was feeling much more humane than when I first awakened. He had calmed too.
A good friend of mine who is a horse trainer always gives the young horses he is working with an intense workout before trying to begin the first steps of training. Their hair would be covered in sweat, but they were always so much easier to work with after a good bit of exercise. Something about exertion softens the edges and calms the animal. I guess that works for humans too. Either way, our conversation progressed and soon we were talking about the family and life. We sat on those logs, the smell of that fresh-cut oak drifting into the air around us as we briefly found a connection to each other. I thought about how the sweat and labor from today would help to heat our house over the winter. How we'd have numerous celebrations with family and friends around one of the two fireplaces. How we'd cut the chill by sitting on the hearth with backs to the flame as the coals radiated that wonderful warmth. About the laughter and glowing faces looking into the fire, hands in front of them, rubbing in the warmth while either Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years happened behind them. About how winter just wouldn't be the same without the gift of the fire from the wood of this old tree.
The honks of migrating Canada Geese overhead broke our conversation. We knew they were moving south, beckoning the cold wind behind their wings as they flew onto warmer weather far from Wisconsin. My father knew that the first snow was coming and with it the bitter cold. And just like that, the door closed on our conversation and we went back to work. Afterward, the separation continued for another ten or so years, when I was in my 20s and my dad was in his late 60s. By then, time had closed the distance that had hung between us. But, I will always treasure the smell of fresh-cut oak rekindling the memories of those brief moments during my teenage years when he and I spoke to one another during a time of separation by generation.