I turned, then hunched slightly to peer under the canopy of green forest. About a hundred feet away, the floor of dry cinnamon needles gave way to the excited steps of one of my students. Army green boots. His arms were cupped as if carrying a heavy load of firewood. The vertebrae in his hands, still nearly intact, gleamed vibrant and white on this cloudy day. I smiled.
“That’s quite a load there,” I said, shaking my head incredulously. The vertebrae protruded from both sides of his elbows, the occasional spear of a rib giving an inkling of the size of the beast. “That’s no deer,” I said.
“What do you think it is, Joe?” By now, my student had caught up with me and was heading for the car.
“I don’t know…maybe an elk?”
“I’m going to put it with my other bones in the car.”
I thought for a second. I didn’t mind the bones in my little car, but the separate piles – one on a pink booster seat in the back and one spilling over our belongings on the passenger seat – were starting to become unseemly.
“Let’s keep the bones out here,” I said, spreading my palms wide to indicate the natural storage container of the earth.
“Naw, we can take them. I just think it would be better if we kept them in piles out here. Then we put them in the trunk when we leave.” I grabbed a handful of bones from the front seat, the curving arc of a rib snagging on my daughter’s winter jacket.
“Look what I found!”
We had come to this muddy canyon to cut wood with a friend of mine. After clearing some trash and identifying a few dead limbs, we took turns cutting some thick branches with a bow saw. The kids, only six and seven, were eager to prove their strength, but their attention was distracted by the real excitement – we had been talking about this for weeks – which lay snarling in the back of my friend’s pickup truck.
I never touched a chainsaw till I was twenty-nine, but I made up for those three decades over the course of several winters in the mountains. One particularly fruitful autumn, my friends and I put up about twenty cords. I prepared for those days as if for God’s interview. Kevlar chaps, leather gloves, tattered denim shirt and a sooty old pair of Carhartts. Iron pumping in my fists, I crashed my way through scrub oaks and over downed trees, which lay like pickup sticks on the steep slopes of the earth. Trigger. Snarrrrrllll…! I can still hear the high-pitched squeal of a chain too loose, the muffled roar of the saw buried in a trunk, my own voice, silent and throaty, as I reared that masterpiece against the woody skeleton of God’s creation. Death is me, and I am death.
“Dad, can we keep them?”
“The bones? Yeah…let’s just keep them out here for now.”
The kids deposited their finds, then raced off in new directions like ants. I had planned on cutting wood most of the day, but we gave up on that soon after discovering the chain was a bit too dull. We hadn’t given up, actually. First, my friend filed and sharpened the teeth, which the kids got to watch. They stared as he filled the gas and oil tanks, then adjusted the tension with the chuck. We talked about the importance of eye and ear protection. My friend is a wiry and aging hippie-biologist. The pink earmuffs he donned were darling.
We put ours on too, then watched as he pull-started the engine. “Sounds like your old car, Joe. Glug-glug-glug-glug.” It’s true. We watched him slice through a few logs, not exactly like butter, then kill the engine. Lips pressed together, he shook his head, then took of his pink muffs. “I’m going to go home and get a new chain,” he said.
“You sure?” I asked. Home was just a few miles away, but I didn’t want to take up more of his time. He was doing this as a favor for me and the kids (I don’t own a chainsaw, or a truck).
“You know,” he said, more to the kids than to me, “I usually carry a box with extra chains and tools with me. I figured we were just going to cut a little bit today, so I didn’t bring it.” He raised his shoulders and feigned a smile. “I should have brought it.”
We followed deer tracks as my friend drove home for the chains. The little canyon had a wash about the width of a truck, full of sand and stones. That’s the route it took, and we followed gratefully. Along the muddy banks, we found colorful stones, old roots and even a small bird’s nest. “Who do you think made it, Joe?” one of the kids asked, touching the soft grass cup with two delicate little fingers. He turned and looked at me with the kind of eyes that think I should know this kind of thing.
I should know this kind of thing.
A little way further, the wash gave way to an open meadow. I pointed out the ponderosas to the southeast slope, then turned northwest and looked over a sea of juniper and pinyon. “How come there’s no ponderosas over there?” I asked, as much to myself as the kids.
“Hey look!” my daughter shouted, then pulled a bone from a pile of bark and twigs. I was about to say, “neat,” or something like that, but was interrupted by my other student shouting, “Hey! More!” Within a few minutes, dashing under trees and through fences, the kids had a tangle of bones in their hands. One of the leg bones reminded me of the Flintstones.
We walked back and found my friend kneeling over the chainsaw. Once, before I had understood the workings of the engine, I had been unable to choke-start the saw and was kicking about with frustration. Another friend, a sixty-nine year old woman, happened by and offered to lay her hands on it as if to give it Reiki.
“Sorry, guys,” my friend said, looking disappointingly at the children’s eyes. “Looks like the guy I lent my saw to last used up all the chains. I thought I had one or two more, but…nope.” The kids were more excited about the bones at this point, so there was little disappointment. “I’ll need to take these in to the shop and have them sharpened,” he said. Anyway, it hadn’t been a bust. The kids saw the chain, the engine, watched a few cuts, and now had even seen the guts of the saw opened up and put back together. That was the important lesson.
We ate lunch. The smell of fermented pine needles mixed with the taste of sandwiches and nuts, and between mouthfuls we eyed the canyon and talked about our days. Spying the ponderosas to one side, I repeated my question from earlier. My friend explained that they were on the southeast slope (facing north) because that’s where they were modestly protected from the sun. “They need more water,” he said. My daughter identified the four cardinal directions, there being no visible landmarks save the sun, which lay behind a thick bank of clouds.
After lunch, my friend excused himself then rose to say goodbye. He had things to do, he said. We did too. I thanked him, then laid on my back. The kids put their lunches away, then propped their heads on me, one on the shoulder, one on the belly. We laid that way for some time, just listening to the silence.
Children don’t need teachers. They need parents, aunties, uncles, etc. who show up for them. They need mentors – examples of men and women who are happy, healthy and holy (or profane). Children are innately capable and bright. They will spontaneously teach themselves whatever the adults in their lives are doing. If those adults are healthy, the children by and large are too. If the adults are exhausted, stressed or distracted, then the children by and large are too. Sending kids to school would make sense if we lived in a society of content and sympathetic people. Maybe it would even be okay that the oceans were full of plastic. But they’re not, and it’s not, so I’m working for something far more radical than a change in the school system, and far more radical than green energy. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m working towards making it okay to spend the day lying in a forest with children.