Life in the Open Air/Chapter III

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Chapter III. The Pine-Tree.

While we were not tickling frogs, we were talking lumber with the Umbagog damster. I had already coasted Maine, piloted by Iglesias, and knew the fisherman-life; now, under the same experienced guidance, I was to study inland scenes, and take lumbermen for my heroes.

Maine has two classes of warriors among its sons, — fighters of forest and fighters of sea. Braves must join one or the other army. The two are close allies. Only by the aid of the woodmen can the watermen build their engines of victory. The seamen in return purvey the needful luxuries for lumber-camps. Foresters float down timber that seamen may build ships and go to the saccharine islands of the South for molasses: for without molasses no lumberman could be happy in the unsweetened wilderness. Pork lubricates his joints; molasses gives tenacity to his muscles.

Lumbering develops such men as Pindar saw when he pictured Jason, his forest hero. Life is a hearty and vigorous movement to them, not a drooping slouch. Summer is their season of preparation; winter, of the campaign; spring, of victory. All over the north of the State, whatever is not lake or river is forest. In summer, the Viewer, like a military engineer, marks out the region, and the spots of future attack. He views the woods; and wherever a monarch tree crowns the leafy level, he finds his way, and blazes a path. Not all trees are worthy of the axe. Miles of lesser timber remain untouched. A Maine forest after a lumber-campaign is like France after a coup d’état: the bourgeoisie are prosperous as ever, but the great men are all gone.

While the viewer views, his followers are on commissariat and quartermaster’s service. They are bringing up their provisions and fortifying their camp. They build their log-station, pile up barrels of pork, beans, and molasses, like mortars and Paixhans in an arsenal, and are ready for a winter of stout toil and solid jollity.

Stout is the toil, and the life seemingly dreary, to those who cower by ingle-nooks or stand over registers. But there is stirring excitement in this bloodless war, and around plenteous camp-fires vigor of merriment and hearty comradry. Men who wield axes and breathe hard have lungs. Blood aerated by the air that sings through the pine-woods tingles in every fibre. Tingling blood makes life joyous. Joy can hardly look without a smile or speak without a laugh. And merry is the evergreen-wood in electric winter.

Snows fall level in the sheltered, still forest. Road-making is practicable. The region is already channeled with watery ways. An imperial pine, with its myriads of feet of future lumber, is worth another path cut through the bush to the frozen river-side. Down goes his Majesty Pinus I., three half-centuries old, having reigned fifty years high above all his race. A little fellow with a little weapon has dethroned the quiet old king. Pinus I. was very strong at bottom, but the little revolutionist was stronger at top. Brains without much trouble had their will of stolid matter. The tree fallen, its branches are lopped, its purple trunk is shortened into lengths. The teamster arrives with oxen in full steam, and rimy with frozen breath about their indignant nostrils. As he comes and goes, he talks to his team for company; his conversation is monotonous as the talk of lovers, but it has a cheerful ring through the solitude. The logs are chained and dragged creaking along over the snow to the river-side. There the subdivisions of Finns the Great become a basis for a mighty snow-mound. But the mild March winds blow from seaward. Spring bourgeons. One day the ice has gone. The river flows visible; and now that its days of higher beauty and grace have come, it climbs high up its banks to show that it is ready for new usefulness. It would be dreary for the great logs to see new verdure springing all around them, while they lay idly rotting or sprouting with uncouth funguses, not unsuspect of poison. But they will not be wasted. Lumbermen, foes to idleness and inutility, swarm again about their winter’s trophies. They imprint certain cabalistic tokens of ownership on the logs, — crosses, xs, stars, crescents, alphabetical letters, — marks respected all along the rivers and lakes down to the boom where the sticks are garnered for market. The marked logs are tumbled into the brimming stream, and so ends their forest-life.

Now comes “the great spring drive.” Maine waters in spring flow under an illimitable raft. Every camp contributes its myriads of brown cylinders to the millions that go bobbing down rivers with jaw-breaking names. And when the river broadens to a lake, where these impetuous voyagers might be stranded or miss their way and linger, they are herded into vast rafts, and towed down by boats, or by steam-tugs, if the lake is large as Moosehead. At the lake-foot the rafts break up and the logs travel again dispersedly down stream, or through the “thoro’fare” connecting the members of a chain of lakes. The hero of this epoch is the Head-Driver. The head-driver of a timber-drive leads a disorderly army, that will not obey the word of command. Every log acts as an individual, according to certain imperious laws of matter, and every log is therefore at loggerheads with every other log. The marshal must be in the thick of the fight, keeping his forces well in hand, hurrying stragglers, thrusting off the stranded, leading his phalanxes wisely round curves and angles, lest they be jammed and fill the river with a solid mass. As the great sticks come dashing along, turning porpoise-like somersets or leaping up twice their length in the air, he must be everywhere, livelier than a monkey in a mimosa, a wonder of acrobatic agility in biggest boots. He made the proverb, “As easy as falling off a log.”

Hardly less important is the Damster. To him it falls to conserve the waters at a proper level. At his dam, generally below a lake, the logs collect and lie crowded. The river, with its obstacles of rock and rapid, would anticipate wreck for these timbers of future ships. Therefore, when the spring drive is ready, and the head-driver is armed with his jack-boots and his iron-pointed sceptre, the damster opens his sluices and lets another river flow through atop of the rock-shattered river below. The logs of each proprietor, detected by their marks, pay toll as they pass the gates and rush bumptiously down the flood.

Far down, at some water-power nearest the reach of tide, a boom checks the march of this formidable body. The owners step forward and claim their sticks. Dowse takes all marked with three crosses and a dash. Sowse selects whatever bears two crescents and a star. Rowse pokes about for his stock, inscribed clip, dash, star, dash, clip. Nobody has counterfeited these hieroglyphs. The tale is complete. The logs go to the saw-mill. Sawdust floats seaward. The lumbermen junket. So ends the log-book.

“Maine,” said our host, the Damster of Umbagog, “was made for lumbering-work. We never could have got the trees out, without these lakes and dams.”