Thursday, June 05, 2008

Sawdust Lessons

From about as far back as I can recall, I would go on hiking trips into the southern woods with my dad. I don’t think I can remember a time when I wasn’t following him through the woods on seemingly random walks. He’d park the old Chevy pickup truck on an abandoned logging road, and off we’d go.

I would always tag along at my dad’s heel. He was a tall, long-legged man, and his idea of waiting was to slow down just a very little bit. Not a nice thing, I suppose, and it’s something that stuck with me. I remain a fast walker when tramping through the forests, and my own response to the plea “wait for me” is to slow down, very slightly, and allow the person hiking with me a chance to catch up. Otherwise, to hell with their slow asses.

One of the things I can vividly remember are his warnings to steer clear of sawdust piles. We would encounter these things all over the place, especially in areas that had been parts of monoculture pine tree plantations for generations. As we would hike along in the neatly planted rows of jacks pines or slash pines or longleaf pines or scotch pines, we would sometimes come upon the site of abandoned sawmills.

The sawmills themselves were long gone. Often they had been temporary affairs, or portable. The landowners would send in teams to assemble these mills to saw up the trees where they were being felled. And, after the area was depleted of mature trees, they would take the mill apart and move it on down the line. The only thing they’d leave behind were vast piles of sawdust.

Depending on the age and the situation, the sawdust piles we’d encounter varied in size and profile. Some of them were massive—tall piles of sawdust going all brown and moist over the years. Some had collapsed in on themselves, rotting from bottom to top and forming dark, concave shapes on the forest floor. If we encountered one in cool weather or on chilly mornings, they would often be steaming with the interior heat of rot.

My dad was actually frightened of these things. When he’d been a very small boy, at the turn of the 20th century, he’d known another boy who had ventured out onto a big sawdust pile. The hard crust on top of that particular pile had given way beneath the boy’s weight and he’d gone through it up to his thighs. The sudden introduction of oxygen caused the slowly rotting stuff to spontaneously combust, and the kid had third-degree burns on his legs. My dad, having seen the boy’s scars much later, never forgot the horror of that. Whenever we’d see one of these things lying so seemingly benign and permanent on the forest floor, we would go wide of it.

And my dad would offer additional warnings of the dangers of the sawdust pile.

Another reason to fear them, he’d tell me, is that because of the interior heat being generated by most of them, they were attractive places for serpents. My dad was not of the enlightened age of trying to understand and tolerate snakes. He loathed them all and would kill just about any snake that encroached on his space, poisonous or non-poisonous. Sawdust piles were great places for snakes to burrow into, seeking warmth in times of rare cool weather in the deep South. One more reason to stay away from the sawdust piles.

Sometimes, when I’m walking alone in the woods, I will encounter these piles of sawdust as I hike along. Recalling my dad’s words, I will steer clear of them, always looking for snakes (although unlike my dad I don’t have any fear of snakes), and I will wonder what heat smolders there, just beneath the dark, moist surface, waiting to burst out, filled with red hot power.

Sawdust Pile Catches Fire

No comments: