The Sawmill Trail

Hilary Jocelyn

“Due to  Covid, your work for next week  has been cancelled.” the email said abruptly, delivering the bad news as I slurped down my morning tea. I gulped unhappily and began to worry about the state of my finances, and to feel sorry and anxious about my employment instability in these pandemic times. I wallowed in a bit of stress and then mulled over my uncertainty for a while, and then I noticed something else slipping into my thoughts and feelings. I took a deep breath and a smile of delight imprinted itself on my face as I realized that I had been given the huge gift of unexpected time. I decided right then and there that I was going do the thing I had been wanting and waiting to do for many months.

I headed out the door with the dog at my heels, and boots on my feet, and made my way down the hill to the stream. I crossed the rickety bridge with a few planks missing, and then nipped up the other side of the bank to the bush beyond. And there, right in front of my very eyes, lay my enormous task. Before I go on, I should set the scene a little.  I live in the woods. Deep in the woods. To find other signs of human existence, I have to walk a good and bumpy way down a rough country lane. Amazing. Wild. Beautiful. And sometimes lonesome. In the years gone by, generations of Irish settlers had established themselves here, struggling to make a living in the fields, in the harsh bush, and on the unceded Anishnabe territory that surrounds them.

 Since I moved here several years ago, I have spent many happy hours wandering and exploring my landscape. One day, a few months ago, as I was climbing and clambering over layer after layer of fallen trees, negotiating branches and dodging blowdown, I came across a piece of old machinery lying abandoned and broken in my dishevelled path.  It was rusty and box shaped and stood upright on two metal wheels with a large circular blade the size of a hula hoop, lying on the ground beside it. It was an old sawmill, and although I am by no means an antiquarian, I imagine that it dated back to the earlier part of the last century. Used by whoever, whenever, as they milled and spliced the trees into splendiferous pieces of wood. That day, I went on my way, continuing my tree and branch hopping, but my heart, would often remember this majestic machine and want to rescue it from its buried obscurity. 

And now, with my week of new founded worklessness ahead of me, the time was rife. I had a project.  I was inspired. A woman on a mission. I was going to clear a path from our house all the way to the collection of houses, half a kilometer away, through the impenetrable woods, past the abandoned sawmill, and it was going to be called “ The Sawmill Trail” . What’s more, it was going to be wide enough for my neighbour, who  has limited mobility, to zoom along on his ATV.

I eagerly gathered my freshly charged and sharpened battery-operated chain saw, a pair of sharp cutters, my work gloves, and crucially, a pair of safety glasses. I was ready for action. Ready Steady Go! . Then, I hesitated. Hurricane Irene had blasted her way through this part of the world in 2011, along with many other storms that have since followed, and all of these had left their vicious trademark. Everywhere I looked were fallen trees, piled high and stacked against each other in my path. It was tempting to feel utterly overwhelmed by my task as I stood and surveyed the scene.  Looking for the path of least resistance, I stooped to pick up an enormous dead branch that lay in front of me. It was surprisingly light and easy to drag to one side.” That wasn’t so hard”, I thought to myself, as I flexed my muscles and got ready to tackle the next one that was positioned diagonally across my path. This time nothing budged an inch, so I pressed the  button on my chain saw and let  it purr its way through the hefty trunk, until it was cut into lifting size pieces which I could  clear away with only a little huffing and puffing.

 I huffed and puffed a lot that first morning, not daring to look more than one or two yards ahead of my intimidating task. Instead, I focussed on clearing what was right there, under my steel-clad toes. One tree at a time. Slowly but surely. Some of the fallen trees I came across were too big to cut through with my modest chain saw, so my path curved creatively to go around them. Some of the big hunky trees were unexpectedly willing to move, and some of the little wee ones were stuck stubbornly in their twisted roots and point blankly refused to shift. Others were held firmly in the arms of sister trees, perched precariously and getting ready to tumble in the next wind. It was chaotic and entirely unpredictable. Trees that had been lying on the ground for many years would often just disintegrated into a pile of rich dark earth if I gave them a hefty kick, going back to where they came from, as they crumbled into soil.

By the time the day was over, and the light was beginning to fail in the wintry sky, I surveyed the scene ahead of me. It felt like I was staring up at the distant summit of a very high and inaccessible mountain that I was in the early stages of climbing.  I sighed as I thought of all the hard work, I had done that day, feeling slightly discouraged by the intensity of the task that still lay ahead. Then I turned around and saw the gleaming path that I had begun to create, emerging slowly but steadily, one tree at a time. Smiling proudly, I wandered wearily back home.

The following morning, I got up early and danced back outside on my steel toes to begin it all again. My muscles sprang into action along with my tools. Lifting, hauling, pulling and heaving. Laughing, appreciating, cursing and exerting until finally I reached the Sawmill who was looking forlorn and unkempt after years of neglect.  I carefully cut away the forest that lay on top, around, and beneath her.  There she stood, on display in the clearing I had created for her, whispering to me about her past, and hinting at the previous life she had witnessed playing out around her.

the sawmill

I admired her for a while and then with a gulp of resignation, turned back to face my task.  Suddenly the woods had got thicker and had become nastier and more defiant. There were impenetrable obstacles. It started to rain. I still had a long way to go. I gave up, swore a little, and walked slowly back to the house dragging my boots through the leaves.

The next day it was my birthday, and the lovely person I share my life with, thoughtfully asked me what I wanted to do on my special day. His mind may have been leaning towards a romantic candlelit dinner or a warm cozy day by the fire, eating cake and drinking tea, but my thoughts were skyrocketing elsewhere. After all, his chain saw was far more powerful than mine, and his biceps were far thicker, so off we adventured together, carrying our saws into the woods, where we celebrated my birthday in the best possible way.

It took several more days of hard intense physical labour before the trail finally burst through the last landmass of fallen trees, to join the wooden bridge that leads to my neighbour’s house. I felt like cracking open a bottle of champagne or at least having a ribbon cutting ceremony, as I experienced the joyous feeling of exhilaration that comes with accomplishing a challenging task . Our community of neighbours now use the newly created path through the woods, and it is lovely to hear sounds of enjoyment coming through the trees, as they wander along its twists and its turns. The trail is something we now share together, like a common thread that links us all, as we walk through the deep dark forest and soak in the history and the mystery that surrounds us.