Woods Work

Deep in the forest where I live are the remains of a granite carriage house built long ago and neglected for half a century. For the past few months, a man I’ve known for years (though not well) has been coming over to help remove brambles and vines from the overgrown walls. Each week, we go into the woods armed with only hand tools, and hands. And while I won’t claim it’s the blind leading the blind, we were both liberal arts majors, so draw what conclusions you will. 

His degree is from Harvard, though, so it’s become a running joke that I only allow Ivy Leaguers to pull poison ivy. As I watch him claw at stubborn roots, I say, “I really learned a lot from Tom Sawyer, but where’s my gold watch?”

“Funny you say that,” he replies and then relates a dream in which he paid twenty dollars for the privilege of being my serf. “I got so mad that I tore up the check and swore not to come back.”

“Twenty?” I say. “In my dream, it was thirty.”

Truth is, we’ve agreed not to trade money for woods work since the paltry sum I could afford might seem more of an insult than boon to his finances. Also, money tends to taint. In lieu of cash, I gift my volunteer with shiitake mushrooms, figs, pears, and, once, a bouquet of chrysanthemums. The produce is appreciated but not required, he assures me. He craves physical work to help sleep at night.

Like a committed couple, we settle into pleasant rhythms and peaceful routines. Some days we work in silence, and some days we share stories about his soccer star son; his wife who makes him bathe the moment he returns home; the woman I love who’s begun seeing someone else. 

One day I’m so punchy from insomnia and heartbreak that I kneel before a mossy human sized rock and shout, “I wanted to share my life with you, but you took me for granite!”

 “I think maybe you should rest,” my co-worker says with a gentle laugh when he sees how useless I’ve become.

Truth is, there are times when we both feel useless–as if we’ve hit a figurative wall and can do nothing more on the literal one until given a sign. But then there’s a subtle shift–a shaft of light glancing through trees, a clap of surprising thunder—and one of us is suddenly renewed with enough vigor to hack through the morass and get us back on track once again.

As you’d expect, we’ve fantasized about finding hidden treasure, and we’ve discussed how to divide the loot and what each of us might do with newfound wealth. But then one of us will snap from foggy delusion and proclaim, “These woods are all that we need.” 

Each day I’m amazed by how—together—we achieve far more than twice what I could accomplish alone; and each day I’m inspired by Nature’s splendid gifts.

Wild geese soar overhead, honking down at us with immense energy.

Woodpeckers with comical red wigs cheer us with laughter.

Falling leaves resemble tears of joy.

Woods work is so fulfilling that I often wonder, Is this merely work, or is it something more? Truly, if I had one day to live—or one hundred years—there is nothing else I’d rather do.

I stand on solid stone and feel light. I tiptoe across bogs and seem to float. 

The forest has swallowed up all the bits of who I used to be and spit me out new. I’ve received so much that I cannot fathom there is more to come until one afternoon when my partner says, “I have extra time before I fetch my son, should we have tea?” 

I suppose it’s because he knows of my romantic trouble and has begun to worry about my being alone for the winter holidays that he invites me to join him for tea in my home. We remove our muddy boots and sit near a roaring fire. At first we speak of many things and then for a time we utter no words. For a long while we merely gaze at seasoned oak burning bright.

As flames flicker and gases rise, it occurs to me that we set out to work in the woods, and the woods wound up working on us. We set out to unveil some old ruins and discovered friendship. 

Cover photo courtesy of Getty Images

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