After breakfast we turned to the ax, which is both a tool and recreational implement I have used much more and with more pleasure than I have a bow. I got into the new winterproof outfit—casually, I am sure—and we went to the woodyard. My father picked up a sawed chunk of chestnut, put it on the hollow-ended oak chopping block and began to try to explain to me about grain. I had at least known the word before. Hanging around while he was splitting wood, I would hear an occasional oath directed at a cantankerous "grain." I may have had the idea it was some foreign body in a log, like a hidden rock. That morning he started to show me what it was, how to turn the piece of wood, come down on it so as to cut with the lines of cleavage rather than against them.
Thinking back on it now, I suspect it was a manipulated lesson arranged for my encouragement and entertainment, one which revealed both the qualities of wood and of my father. Though not many know it, there is no wood easier and more satisfying to split than American chestnut. It is so nicely grained and brittle that you barely need to tap a dry piece to divide it. At that time the chestnut blight that shortly was to kill off virtually all of these magnificent trees that once had provided nearly half the forest cover in the Eastern U.S. was already licking at the area. Also, even without blight, chestnuts did not do well in the sandy lake habitat. Thinking back, I can see that wood I was whaling away at on Christmas Day—light golden brown, so straight-grained. I have a strong suspicion my father went someplace and found a few pieces of chestnut to ensure the success of my first try at splitting.
Whether it was luck or design, I remember that I somehow beat apart enough wood to make a small armload. I carried it inside and fed it to the fire with a considerable sense of accomplishment. Essentially the same sort of activity has been giving me satisfaction ever since. As some people, for reasons that are incomprehensible to me, enjoy spreading new paint over a wall or mowing grass, adding one painted or clipped swath to another, I have always liked splitting wood, transforming big logs into small ones. Physically, there is a nice loose rhythm to it, and there is a mild intellectual involvement, sizing up each chunk, looking for the line on which to deliver the key first blow. Maybe one reason why this has always been more of a recreation than a chore is the good start I got off to that bitter cold Christmas Day.
After the woodsplitting there probably was some coloring, some reading, some winding up of the toy truck, and then we ate one of the chickens for dinner. Later, in midafternoon, my father said that because I had such fancy new gear there was no reason why I should not come along while he checked his trap-line in the marsh. I may have been with him before when he set out traps in better weather. I know I had watched him skin muskrat, and anytime I went into the shed their drying pelts were hanging there on wire frames. In a few years I would be doing these things myself and it would be commonplace, but this was the first day I clearly recall being in, so to speak, the field.
My father hitched Mike to the sled, and I got aboard with my ax. The wind of the previous day had scoured and packed the snow and the very low temperatures had given it a hard crust, strong enough so that we could move along on the surface. The pale afternoon sun did not give off much warmth but, reflecting from the snow, it did give everything a soft, diffused coppery tint. As I see it now, it is as though the air itself had a cast of this color. We crossed the golf course and went through a strip of oaks that fringed the frozen marsh that lay beyond. The surface of the marsh was broken by the domed contours of muskrat lodges and by clumps of cattails that rattled when we brushed past and in the light were more golden than dead brown.
Since then, and again in part perhaps because of those early experiences, I have developed a taste for wintry places, and I have had unusual opportunities to indulge myself in many cold places—rocks above the tree lines, deep evergreen forests, winter prairies, arctic ice, taiga, tundra. Even so, that Michigan marsh remains for me one of the better winter days and places.
We circled the trapline, broke through the crust and snow to tend to the sets that needed it and probably took a few dollars worth of muskrat, but none of this left a great impression. I had seen muskrat carcasses before and under these conditions they are as solid and seem as inanimate as a block of wood. However, we later came across something that was alive, though barely, and which has remained memorable.
We had left the marsh through another grove of oaks where, earlier in the fall, my father had been cutting and in consequence had left a brush pile. There, collapsed under the eaves of this mound, was an opossum. This species was then making its way into southern Michigan from the south and was less common there than it is today. This particular animal was too far north in the wrong year. Because of the cold or injury, its hindquarters were partly paralyzed, and its long, prehensile tail had been reduced by freezing and infection to a swollen, blackened stump. There was blood around the muzzle—perhaps he had broken his teeth trying to tear at some edible bit locked in the ice. When we came up, the ruined animal was much too feeble to take evasive action but had enough strength and spunk to give a weak, defiant hiss. Mike lunged forward, barking. My father restrained the dog and stood staring sadly at the dying opossum.
I may have asked if we could take the animal home, rehabilitate it and make a pet of it, or perhaps my father just anticipated the question, which even by then would have been almost an automatic one for me. My father explained that this creature was beyond such help and compassion, that there was only one kindness we could now do him. Instead of just doing it, he took a few moments to talk to me about what he was going to do and why. I can no longer hear the exact words, but there remains the memory of the sense of them, the sense of my father's manner and particularly his face—red from being so much in the cold that year, ice in his blond mustache, a welt of deeper red scar tissue across his nose, serious but soothing. The sense that I remember was that we were not doing a small, casual or easy thing but a hard and essential one; that between us and the opossum there was an intimate bond. When he had explained it as well as he could, had prepared me as much as possible, he picked up the Christmas ax and with the flat of it gave the opossum one sharp terminal blow on the head.
Having by this time had enough small pets to have learned something about death and its rituals, I must have asked if we should bury the animal. The answer I think I recall fairly well, or maybe it is just that it is such an obvious one, one I have since given to similar questions in similar circumstances. "No, we'll leave him here. Something else, maybe a fox, will eat him and it will help him get through the winter. If we bury him he won't do anything any good until spring."