(Okay, I realize you can’t read this with your eyes closed, so metaphorically do this).
Close your eyes and picture newly harvested wheat fields rolling out below your feet. You can see yellow stubs barely escaping from earth that is soft and dark, covering the hills like a shaggy, golden carpet. And you can feel the flutter of the summer’s last few insects around your ankles. Now turn slowly, breathing in the freshness of the air, and look behind you where the seam between the fields and the forest is sown up with moss and sapling trees. The heart of the forest is deep and still. You can hear it sighing as it prepares for its winter slumber.
And it doesn’t matter what time you picture yourself there because this little corner of the earth probably hasn’t changed significantly in centuries. The years have rolled by like waves on a forgotten beach, uncounted.
It was here that I found my inner lumberjack.
On a cool Sunday afternoon I traveled by bus to Liberec, a town within a day’s hike from the borders of both Germany and Poland, to visit a Czech family for my last few days of summer.
This particular family likes to spend their free days going out to their farm to clear wood, maintain the buildings on the property, and shoot airguns. Mr. K is Czech and Mrs. K is so very British, and all four of their sons are a delight. So our time was sprinkled with things very Czech, very British and very delightful.
Monday, just after a lovely lunch of homemade stuffed puff-pastries, we trekked out to the countryside with tools, a picnic basket, warm jackets, a dog and some little neighborhood boys. The boys – about 10 and 12 – were very excited to join the expedition and the three of us sat, giddy children ready for an adventure. (The boys’ mom had just gotten back from the hospital with their newest sibling and Mrs. K thought it might be good to lighten her load, so to speak). Also along to help was sweet Eliška, a friend of the K family and a friend of mine.
We were a motley crew, the lot of us. But we were greeted warmly by the co-owners of the farm and their flock of sheep and goats. (Necessary selfies were taken with the farm animals).
My family did 4-H for years so stepping out of the van into the smell of manure and old hay was a bit like stepping back into my childhood, minus the pigtails and that obnoxious horse that, I swear, was out to kill me.
The farm has been jointly owned by the K family for 86 years, broken up briefly when it was seized by the Nazis and then controlled by the communists. The property has seen hard years, but the Ks have been working hard to keep the place running and useful. They lease out the fields to the co-owner and take care of the large shed and barn which have both seen damage from floods, thieves and the ever-turning hand of time.
“Anything gets boring if you do it every week for eight years,” he repeated to me several times during the course of our walk through the fields to the river and up the wooded hillside (The men had driven the van ahead of us through the fields – we went up the back way to take in a bit of the property). “I don’t see any reason to do all this. It makes more sense to stay home and play video games.”
Ah, the wisdom of twelve year olds. And he reminds me of mine back home.
Not even the incredible view of the pastures and the tree-laced slopes that towered over the right side of the path seemed to perk up his spirits. I tried to dampen my excitement for his sake, but there was no getting around the fact that this day was an adventure I have been dreaming of my whole life. Farm animals. Old buildings. Harvested wheat fields. A FOREST WITH TREES TO BE CUT DOWN. The Paul Bunyan in me (that secretly lives in every American) was crying tears of joy as we began our climb up the steep slope of the hill.
We found the guys taking down old trees and sawing them into chunks. Pulling on our gloves, we then carried them over to the edge of the forest where they were loaded into the van.
Some of the logs were light because of rot and others were cumbersome or sticky with sap. Like any good lumberjack, I sat on the heavy ones until they behaved themselves. Bunyan would have been proud.
We couldn’t have asked for a better work environment. The forest was beautiful. Tiny pinecones hung on tree branches like ornaments and red berries brightened the deep green boughs. It looked like my sister had gone in there and decorated the whole place for a pre-Christmas hot cocoa party.
I was amazed at how dark it was in the forest. Those trees stretch up to the heavens with thick leaves fleshing out their upper branches. But down where we walk around, all we see are trunks or dying limbs, spots that are decaying or that have been rubbed raw by the wild boar herds that roam around. (Yes, you read that right, there are wild boar herds here). But when you walk toward the clearing, towards those golden fields, the sunlight pours down like champagne – it glitters and bubbles and warms you right up.
I will always find it amazing, how powerful the sun is.
It’s difficult work, actually. Carrying bundles of wood is hard on your arms, your legs, your back and any dignity you thought you had. I dropped things on my toes. I found myself struggling to carry wood in the most awkward positions before realizing I probably could have just made two trips. I nearly died several times after discovering a spider(s) upon my person.
One glove didn’t fit properly so things tended to slip from that hand. And my glasses cut off my peripheral vision so I walked into more than one tree during the course of the afternoon.
“Have a drink, Mary,” said Mrs. K. She held out a turquoise cup – plastic, like the kind my grandma kept in her bottom cupboard for the grandkids when we all came over. I took it gratefully, noting that the youngest K boy and one of the neighborhood chums were both taking a break also, their handsaw and pile of logs resting peacefully behind the back tire of the van.
I was surprised when I took a sip of what I had presumed was black tea. The sweet, tingly taste of Dr. Pepper burst onto my tongue, like a distant memory that becomes brighter when revisiting old pictures and songs. I don’t remember the last time I had a Dr. Pepper and I don’t think I even cared for it that much in the USA. But now I’m pretty sure it will always taste like nostalgia.
We kept a steady pace for several hours, until the light turned the color of grain and the sky began to pale. The boys kept sawing, Eliška and I carried (and dragged, when necessary) wood to the growing stack of timber, and we all ate cookies. Also, I chopped down a tree.
Wait, let’s go back to that last one.
I CHOPPED DOWN A TREE.
For a moment, I stopped halfway between our worksite and the fields. I looked about at all the dying wood that needed to be cleared. The Ks may never be able to finish this. They may never see their dreams for the roofless barn fulfilled. They may toil on this land till they wither and die like the trees. And it will still be good.
This is humbling work. It is hard work. And I can see how, after many years, it can feel very unimportant.
But in what other way can we so directly fulfill God’s calling to be a steward of the earth? With dirty hands and sweaty faces we are giving a small sacrifice of obedience to the Creator who has given us so much.
“Content to fill a little space, if Thou be glorified.”
Those are some words, aren’t they? I always forget the name of the hymn, but that one line comes back to me often. This forest is one of the little spaces where the K family is faithfully glorifying God.
We loaded the rest of the wood, ate the rest of the goodies in the picnic basket, and then made our way back toward the farmyard. We sent the neighbor boys and the dog back through the forest with youngest K boy, his earlier wishes to stay home and play video games melted into sap-slicked hands and vivacious laughter.
The van bumped along slowly, loaded heavily with our tools and the last of the wood. From the window, those rolling hills looked like sleeping dragons whose golden scales rippled beneath the pull of the evening wind. And I thought of my own little space. My place of toil.
I closed my eyes and pictured it. I pictured the warm, soapy water I mop the floor with on Saturday mornings. I pictured the grouchy little faces of students I sometimes run out of patience for. I pictured long, long walks home from the bus when I’m cold and tired. I pictured those moments where I doubted or, worse, begrudged the work I have been given.
Somehow, understanding that our daily chores and responsibilities are like woodlands that need to be tended – and if not by us, then by whom? – makes it easier to pick up the ax and saw with a smile. Not saying that the work becomes any less difficult or the forest any less dark, only that it’s so much easier to see that the place you’re laboring in is really very beautiful when you know the purpose for which you’re toiling. And my, that sun is powerful.