~ Riceland Meadows ~

A Winter Day
by Ralph Rice

Wind blows through the pines, their limbs bending under the weight of snow. I hitch to the log cart, brush off the snow, and start for the woods across an open goldenrod field buried in a deep, fluffy blanket of snow.

My horses are fresh and ready for work after having the weekend off. Our trip across the field and through the bordering pines warms them up like athletes stretching before a game. Their muscles ripple under their glossy black coats, shining in the sun. The wind blows their manes and tails, and nips at my nose as we trot briskly toward the woods through a sea of white snow.

The sound of a chainsaw goes quiet and a large oak crashes to the ground. We move toward the sound and the work awaiting us.

The red oak is a nice one. I hook to the fourth log from the stump, just right for our first drag of the day. Once we have warmed up, we'll take the second and third logs together on our next trip. Then we'll take the butt log. For that I will use my tongs, because log grabs would blemish this candidate for veneer.

The horses wait quietly while I drive my grabs into the first log. I step the team ahead. The log swings into position. I stop the team and back them, gather the slack out of the log chain, and put the link into the drawbar as tight as possible. When the horses step ahead the end of the log lifts off the ground slightly, and we make our way to the landing. The load pulls easily along the frozen ground and the horses move effortlessly, seeming to enjoy the winter day as much as I do.

Halfway to the landing the horses rest in the skid way, while I survey the few remaining trees to be cut. We are working to open the stand—thinning just enough to help the next generation grow. In late summer I had marked the trees to be culled by checking the canopy for overcrowding. I selected the ones whose removal would let in needed sunlight to the greatest number of crop trees, letting them flourish and become more valuable for the landowner.

I harvested these woods once before, 15 years ago. When we leave in a week or two, the skid ways will be clean, tops from the harvested trees will be lying about, but a nice woodlot will remain. A few months cutting firewood from the tops and the forest will once again take on the park-like appearance its owners appreciate.

I speak to the team and we start for the landing. The brightly shining sun offers little heat on this cold day. The birds flit here and there, ignoring us as we pass by. The horses walk steadily, their harness bells ringing crisply to add a gentle music to the pristine scene.

I drive out the grabs to unhook the log in the landing. The plinking of my grab hammer is the loudest noise, aside from the chainsaw in the distance. We head back into the woods, following our tracks to the felled red oak. The woods embrace us and forgive us for the harvest. The young trees stretch for the sky, grateful for the new-found sun. I see the regeneration of life all around me as I sink my grabs into the waiting logs.

Hooking onto the last load of logs from the oak, four from the top, leaves only firewood to clean up. The next tree, a crooked tulip poplar, awaits. The timber cutter continues to fell and buck logs as we work our way back to the landing.

The sun starts to set in the western sky and we bring in the day's last load. It's been a good day for us—we have skidded 4,000 board feet. My team and I are ready for supper and the peace home provides. Tired, but satisfied, I pause once more to reflect on the oak tree, the seed left behind, the harvests to come, and the pleasures of a job well done.

Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Winter 2005 issue.

22 January 2005