Winter is in full swing, and a tenacious fog has wrapped itself around the Quercy. Colored lights have been strung in all the surrounding villages, and a large Christmas tree festooned with odd bits of multi-colored tinsel has taken up residence in front of the village hall. And from every chimney, down every country road, a cheerful plume of smoke rises to merge with the low leaden sky.
It’s woodcutting season, and I’m in my element.
Honestly, there’s nothing like starting up a chainsaw to boost a man’s sense of machismo. The weight of the machine, the little jolt of torque as the chain starts to spin, the seemingly gratuitous but necessary gunning of the motor to disengage the choke – it’s all calculated to bring on a testosterone high like nothing else. For me, it’s a high that lasts right until I start cutting.
I love cutting wood, but somehow, even in my fourth winter here, I’m not very good at it. Oh, I’ve improved, no question. I’ve got a better sense of how often to pause, pull out my file and sharpen the chain’s teeth. I know just what length to cut so that it’ll fit in the wood-burner, and which logs are too knotted to bother trying to split once I’ve cut them to size. I’ve got my rhythm, and I’ve still got all my fingers, so I can’t complain.
And yet it’s always humbling. Some days the logs seem to fight back. I’ll nestle one into the V of the sawhorse, and just as I reach down to pick up the chainsaw the log will inexplicably shift its weight and hit the ground with a mocking thud. So I reposition it for better balance, but now not enough of it is protruding for me to cut the right length for our insidiously small wood-burner. So I try sliding it with one hand, I try kicking it a bit with my foot, I try invoking the spirit of the tree it once was. And all the while I’m grateful to be alone as my mojo is ground into so much sawdust.
Splitting the thicker pieces usually involves the same sort of Marx Brothers routine. No matter how carefully I set the short section of log on its end, it rarely stays there long enough for me to hammer a wedge into it and split it in half. I won’t go into the silent humiliation, rarely witnessed by others but just as poignant nonetheless, of hefting my sledgehammer and swinging at the perfectly balanced log and wedge only to miss.
All this is just shooting fish in a barrel compared to cutting down a tree. Live trees have much more creative ways of fighting back than logs. They position themselves on awkward slopes near your house. They drop dead branches on your head while you’re cutting. Even in the throes of death they will twist as they fall - see you in hell, you can almost hear the branches curse as they plummet towards you. Taking down these wily bastards is an art in itself, and although I’ve mastered it enough to tackle the smaller ones on my own, I don’t mess with any tree that’s too big for me to hug. We have a few of those that need to go this winter, and that’s where Francois comes in.
I keep putting off calling Francois. He’s a pleasant and kind man, and is one of the best tree cutters around. He doesn’t grossly overcharge me, and he is always ready with a smile, friendly conversation and expert advice. At least, I think so. I can’t understand a word Francois says.
Having trouble following all of a conversation is a pretty common problem when you live abroad and speak the language imperfectly. There are always moments when you have to ask people to repeat themselves, and the French, at least around here, are usually pretty obliging. But you can only ask for so many repetitions before people start speaking to you very loudly, which for the record really doesn’t help at all. So then you’re left with piecing together the words you do you know and filling in the gaps with your best guesses based on context.
After a while you start to watch out for the telltale puzzled looks, awkward silences and nervous laughter that warn you when you’ve guessed wrong. These looks, like the toes bruised from logs falling on them or the singed hairs on my hand after an awkward encounter with the wood-burner, are the daily reminders of how much we still have to learn here. At one time Sophia and I spent our days bringing our expensive educations to bear on the arcane complexities of corporate law. Now we find ourselves struggling for mere competence in the daily necessities of living in so raw and unmediated a place.
I’ll get around to calling Francois. I’ll ask him when he can drop by, and he’ll say something like behn, damang, fang de matinay in his gruff, rapid-fire Cassagnes farmer’s twang of which, on a good day, I can make out one word in four. And I’ll say sure, great, see you then, and be forced by my own cowardice to hang around the house for days hoping that he hadn’t actually suggested an afternoon in February.
And when he does arrive, and is in the process of pointing at various trees and emitting strings of sound that I’m sure could be resolved, with enough time, into something resembling the French language, I’ll start to feel tempted. Perhaps cutting down big trees is actually less challenging than deciphering the local dialect. Next year, maybe I can start taking a shot at the trickier ones myself.
The temptation won’t last though. A day or two later I’ll be cutting firewood again. Between bursts of sawing, the familiar sound of English expletives will drift across the fields and woodlands around our house. Francois’s work will be safe for another year.