Saturday, July 6, 2013

On hard work and the decomposition of trees.

One of the key aspects of life at Bear Lake is hard work. Perhaps unexpected, given that it's supposed to be a vacation. There is the hard reality of living in a house that sees people 2-3 times per year: there is just a lot of maintenance work to be done. The second is that work is part of feeling fulfilled as human beings. You get hooked on the rewards of manual labor. You get to tangibly improve your living space. See it right there. Falling soundly asleep after a long day of hard work is so satisfying. Today was one of those days.

The project: clear the large wood pile currently rotting near the house.

The task: move all that wood to a burn pile ~50 yards away using your hands and a small hauler. I started off running solo.

The process: drive tractor up to wood pile, load logs of 10-50 lbs each into trailer with hands, drive to burn pile, unload trailer with hands, repeat. Repeat and repeat and repeat until you're so tired you can't hold a full-fledged thought in your head.

Working gloves proved the most critical piece of equipment. The wood pile varied in stages of decomposition; almost all of them crumbled when grabbed. As my fingers sank repeatedly into mushy, moldy lumber, the only thought on my mind was, "Thank god I'm not actually touching this stuff."

I uncovered an ecosystem that exists on decaying trees. Ants build nests underneath the bark in the area hollowed out by termites. Salamanders colored brown with a bright orange streak (blending quite well with rotting wood) patrol the surface in search of the many ants, termites, and other insects that take up residence. Fungi of many different varieties and colors set up shop. Centipedes skitter about, likely on the same mission as the salamanders.

In a place of death and decay, there is a remarkable amount of life.

The most notable of the fungi was this collection of pink molds.

I took to wearing a ventilation mask on account of the molds. With so much of it probably going airborne as I tossed logs into the trailer, I breathed a little easier knowing none would give me some crazy respiratory symptoms.

The heat and humidity was relentless. It isn't nearly as bad up in these wooded lands of the Pocono Mountains, but it gets plenty hot just the same. About an hour into the project, I was thoroughly soaked and peppered with wood scraps. Donned in shorts, sandals, gloves, ventilator mask, and nothing else (except for the sweat glistening on my skin), I was probably a bizarre sight to behold.

The lower back aches, even with proper core engagement and lifting technique. My wrists and hands complain about repeatedly grabbing objects at odd angles and hoisting them. Knees and legs begin to tire. It becomes a challenge to keep the inspiration, stoke the fire that drove you to attack the task with such gusto at the beginning. Learning how to keep up with labor over the long haul is a unique challenge.

Lunch and an afternoon siesta offers a valuable respite to keep energized.

My day was peppered with exciting moments to spice up the day. While tossing yet another huge log onto the brush pile, I caught a glimpse of a translucent body partially hidden underneath some rotting wood. Upon further investigation, I revealed the largest grub I have ever seen.

It was as big as my thumb.

This sucker is the Jabba The Hut of the grub world. I imagine little grublings bringing offerings of chewed wood fiber (or whatever the hell they eat) in exchange for the right to exist on that log. Jabba was quite adept at burrowing. I had to keep coaxing it out with a stick -- no way I was going to touch it with my finger -- for the photo op. It would quickly turn its head down and worm its way through the soft wood, the little mandibles at its mouth constantly working. The body beneath the thin outer skin would slide forward and backward as it worked its way in.

I will admit: I did squeal like a little boy when I found it. There was a certain fascination about this gross critter.

Intellectually, I know that fallen trees eventually decompose to become part of the forest floor. But there is no substitute for seeing it in action. I was shoveling what amounted to organic mulch. The wood really does turn to dirt. It is SO AMAZING. Its soft, reddish, and moist.

After about 5 hours of strenuous work, it was time to call it quits on hauling the wood pile -- because the tractor ran out of gas. But our work was not yet finished. My dad and I broke out the chainsaw to hack up a rather large fallen tree next to the wood pile that also needed to be cleared. More bending over and heavy lifting.

Rough, dirty days like these are best concluded by a trip to the lake. Caked with mud, sweat, sunscreen, wood chips, and squashed mosquitoes, there is nothing quite like diving into the pristine waters of the lake. My dad describes it as a "baptismal experience." It is a gratifying moment, washing yourself clean of the day. It is now time to reset, to exit work mode, to sit back and revel in what you've accomplished. Your relaxation is deep, rewarding, and earned. Your muscles ache, but you get to rest -- good job.

*  *  *

Forgoing my Ashtanga yoga practice for the day (having concluded that morning practice before breakfast is the most sensible), I am enjoying a calm evening on the porch, writing about the day and sipping at a glass of incredibly delicious whisky brought back from the UK. The porch is screened in, so the cool night air can be experienced without the obligatory swarm of mosquitoes and other insects. Bird calls dominate the auditory landscape while the sun is setting, drowned out occasionally by the rushing of wind through the trees. As night falls, the chirping of crickets and other forest critters take over. Reka, our family dog, barks at who-knows-what from inside, dutifully alerting everyone in the house that, indeed, there are other creatures outside in the darkness.

The light fades from the sky, casting trees in negative space. Lightning bugs flash their intermittent, luminescent signals, communicating in some primitive argo. It is only 9:30pm, but I am ready for bed. Tomorrow's sun will bring a new day of hard, rewarding work.

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