Written by Nick Anderson, SAWS Senior Wilderness Ranger
Inspired by Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac
Loaded down with tools and camping gear we follow the single-track trail. The sun is shaded out by the large deciduous canopy, but the forest floor feels like an oven. What were exciting new faces on the crew at the beginning of the season are now very familiar and conversation is intermittent. The quiet solitude of mid-summer in the forest is omnipresent and welcomed. The weight of our gear seems to get heavier with every passing mile, no doubt soaking up the sweat that’s sliding off us in the high humidity of the southern Appalachians. We approach an obstruction in the trail. The crosscut saw on our shoulder that has been happily bouncing along gets quiet as we stop as if in anticipation of what's to come. Our attention is turned to the 24-inch White Oak that blocks the trail. Packs and gear are shed from strong backs to the ground, tools and safety gear start to appear and are assembled as if someone is barking orders. Hardly a word is said. The lead sawyer assesses the tree as if they're reading a familiar book, confidence is conveyed, and a plan is set in motion. The now ready saw is passed over the 250-year-old tree to the other waiting sawyer. The saw steel is bright with long sharp teeth and gullets hungry for wood; it too is familiar with what's to come. Both sawyers settle in and as if synchronized they began working the saw back and forth across the cambium of the oak. Long smooth strong pulls from one sawyer are answered by the same from the other sawyer. No words are necessary. The saw advances quickly through the youngest growth rings of the aged oak. In the opening volley of saw strokes, the sawyer advances back in time, severing and removing the oak’s growth of their lifetime. The saw does not seem to care and sings along in its work, removing slivers of history and time as if it were flipping through the pages of a history book. The sawyers remain fluid in their motion as the sweat rolls off their skin and heart rates elevate and then stabilize. With each pull the wood chips that encompass vast amounts of time empty from the gullets onto the ground. A smile cracks across the face of the lead sawyer “Look at those noodles.” Yet again the saw disappears into the oak to resume its work. The sawyers are acutely focused on the task at hand and rhythmically steam along like an old narrow-gauge train that once was laid in this very spot. The saw passes through the pith (center of the tree) and the removal of the oak's growth starts racing forward in time to once again intersect with the sawyers’ lives. Back and forth they pull; the saw is running smoothly and freely. The sawyers are almost ready for a rest, and the saw is almost through the oak. The saw advances quickly to the bottom of the log, and once again the cambium is removed. With straining muscles and thirst the sawyers finally hold the saw still. In a climatic fraction of a second, the severed oak falls to the ground with a slight roll to its final resting place. The saw vibrates from the release of the log, still suspended from where the oak once was. “Rest” says the lead sawyer.
The year of the pith is 1773 (2023), 16 years from North Carolina's statehood.