A smell of pine and men at work
By Bill Thompson
I tend to meander through the past sometimes — more as I get older. Meandering is the perfect word for my thought process since it means there is no obvious direction involved, nothing of substance happening, and no specific goal in mind. Just about anything can set off my meandering. Just the other day, a log truck tried to turn the corner too short as it came out of the woods just down the road from my house. As a result, the trailer overturned and deposited about 20 pine logs on the road. Traffic was held up in both directions. As is the Southern custom, when traffic stops anywhere for more than five minutes, you get out of the car and walk to wherever the source of the holdup is. Part of that effort is to determine what caused the holdup, but the most important element is to tell whoever is in charge of clearing up the situation how to do it.
It was the smell of the pine logs that set off my meandering that day. When I was growing up in the little hamlet of Hallsboro, the lumber industry and farming were the main sources of income for the inhabitants. Even if your primary occupation was farming, you had to cut some of the trees on the farm to either clear the land for planting or provide some cash to tide you over until the crops came in.
Cutting timber assaulted and embraced the senses. Not all the woodland where I grew up was in the swamp, but it was usually wet nonetheless. So when folks went in to cut the trees, the traffic of tractors and trucks created a muck that not only made maneuvering difficult, but also generated a smell of mud and oil and rosin unique to that activity. Combine that with the smell of burning debris created by trimming the trees and clearing the brush, and you have an aroma that lingers and resurfaces in the meandering mind of an old man long after the scene has disappeared from the landscape.
The dormant odor of the woods at the site of the log truck accident stimulated not only my memory of the smells associated with a long-ago time and place, but also made me recall the sounds as well. There was the ringing thud of an ax; the regular, sharp, scrapping sound of the cross-cut saw as two men rhythmically cut through a towering tree; the shout of “Timber!” to warn of the impending crash of the falling arbor; and the powerful silence that followed: a quiet reverence.
Settled in among those old sounds, like the notes of a music chord, is the laughter of the men. Sometimes that laughter was shaded by some rough language that just provided a background like timpani to the brass and strings of the conversation. There were young men learning from old men, learning how to accomplish a job none of them could do alone, a job replete with traditions that could only be passed from person to person, traditions as old as the need for men to provide shelter for their families. Neighbors “swapped work,” assisting each other when none of them could afford to hire help. They were glad for the help and loved the fellowship of labor. It was hard, dirty, back-breaking work, but it was honest work and generated a pride among the loggers, a pride that came from doing a job well.
Out of my memory of those nascent sights and smells emerged a scene that refocused in my meandering mind. There were men in overalls and long denim jackets, wide felt hats, and brogan shoes. They toiled in the mud under tall pine trees. They pulled the newly fallen logs to the loading dock with an old tractor, loaded the logs on old trucks using giant cant hooks and chains to secure the load. They were black men and white men: dressed the same, did the same work, bought their clothes and food at the same store, shared life together. They worked side by side, not because they wanted to but because they had to.
It’s amazing what a meandering mind can conjure. Sometimes it might be real and sometimes it might be imagination or dreams. And sometimes, as my Grandmother Council once told me, “Sometimes the mind wanders just for the sake of wanderin.’” I agree with that.
Bill Thompson is a regular Salt contributor. His newest novel, Chasing Jubal, a coming of age story in the 1950s Blue Ridge, is available where books are sold.