There is lots of excitement today. We have spent the past week cribbing an old building across the street from our home. It is one of the original two-story houses built decades ago when the town was just a small settlement. Dad is leading a work crew consisting of my older brothers and myself. I am too young to do much of the manual work and heavy lifting. Instead, I have been operating the John Deere tractor. I am 13 years of age. We are getting ready to move a house.
We are setting up two giant pine logs 40 feet in length under the building to act as a sleigh that the house will sit on. The pine logs are pushed, pulled and lifted into place to one side of the building. Dad yells orders while standing in the mud the log has churned up. The yard is a mess with tractor-tire marks, upturned soil and our own footprints in the wet clay. It is a grey, overcast day and the rain drizzles down every now and then as we work. The two-foot diameter logs are wrapped in chains that twist and roll the enormous timber into place. The bark rips violently off the trunk as it rubs against the ground and that sends up the sweet scent of fresh pine into the air.
Dad is in his element and yells out orders and cautions us now and then about the dangers of our work. We can’t stand there, don’t do that, do it this way, give the tractor more gas, come back, go forward. The logs slip into place one at a time under the house and then two shorter and smaller logs are placed on top as cross-braces to complete the sleigh. Large foot-long galvanized steel spikes are driven into the pine with our large sledgehammers. Steel cables are wrapped around the logs at different points where they will be pulled by the band’s large caterpillar tracked tractor.
Dad is shouting over the rattle and rumble of the John Deere and the David Brown tractors that are being used to help with the move. One of my older brothers operates a chainsaw and the scream of the two-stroke motor drowns out all the voices around this commotion. We can’t hear dad over the machines but we all keep an eye out for his hand gestures, waves and pointing fingers for direction. Amidst the mechanical noises, he is like a conductor directing an orchestra of loggers, tractor drivers and chainsaw operators. As the work becomes dangerous or critical, his gestures turn into full arm waves as he pleads for us to stop whatever life-threatening move we are making.
This scene could be a chapter from a book I am currently reading titled, Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey. The problem is that it was real life. My life on the rez. I just never realized someone had written a book that captured what I had experienced.
I picked the book up at the library on the advice of a good friend. After a few long chapters, I was happy to read about scenes, characters and situations that were similar to ones I had lived through in the north. The book is about a family of loggers living in the U.S. Pacific Northwest in Oregon. I could easily picture the scenes of lumberjacks cutting down trees, grappling them with cable to pull them into place, clearing brush away from the work while shouting out yeah or no over the noise of engines, tractors or chainsaws. I could feel the lumberjack’s exhaustion, muscle aches and soreness from hard and dangerous work in the woods. It was easy for me to envision the tough, fun-loving and living on the edge lumberjacks. The scene was one I had lived many times in Attawapiskat.
The book is having a great impact on me. I easily relate to the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with a hard day’s work but I also recognize the tense relationships and situations depicted in the book. I knew what those characters were feeling. I could identify with their feelings of restlessness, uneasiness and fear amidst the constant chaos, driven attitudes and danger. Kesey also manages to convey the goodness and the earthiness of his characters, who touch me with their vulnerability, humour, kindness and anger.
I can hardly wait to get back to the book. It feels good to be able to really understand what Kesey was trying to do with it. I am well into the read at this point and I imagine that there will be few surprises for me as I roam through the pages. It is as though I am living this life once again on the steep banks of the Attawapiskat River where the water rushes by and tall trees fall under the axe and at the end of a chainsaw.