Rain drips in syncopated streams from the roof of the wooden shed. Out in the yard, disconsolate donkeys stand in soft mud, large heads nosing towards the ground. They have thin brown stripes across their shoulders and down their backs, and their manes stand up like little red mohawks. Their ears are stiff folded velvet, and swivel to create a variety of expressions. Little Eeyores, Britta calls them. I love their dusty fawn gray hair and their patient thoughtful expressions as I scratch between their ears. I feel my heart open up and it is painful and sweet. I imagine a life with donkeys in it, their sweet affectionate presence in my yard, the way we’d go on walks together, the way they would come to meet me and recognize my smell. We’d have a special bond, these donkeys and I.
Perhaps I am guilty of a fairly typical romanticizing of rural life to which we urbanites are prone. The longing for connection to animals, to feel from them some kind of meaningful response to our presence. The idealization of life out here in the crisp air, picturing the smell of wood smoke and skipping over the blisters and sore shoulders that result from chopping wood.
I leave the damp chewed wooden fence, where the donkeys come to meet their admirers. They lift their lips and let out soft brays, watch our retreating forms with wet black eyes.
Back under the shed, Yvonne and Adam and Craig are chopping wood with mauls. A maul is a large heavy axe used for splitting wood. Lindsay has gathered several cords worth of rounds, and she has invited us over for a lumberjack party, to assist her in splitting the rounds into smaller burnable chunks of wood. This is her heat for the winter, which looms closer and closer. It snowed up here in Butler Creek last night, though it has since melted off, leaving muddy roads and cold wet grass, pocked with remnant lumps of snow.
I have a confession to make. I have never chopped wood before. In Montana, I feel that this admission is a major faux pas, which brands you indelibly and makes people look at you differently. As if your hands are as soft as a donkey’s nose. Like you don’t know how to take care of your basic needs. Which is fairly true, in my case.
I’ve lived in Alaska, summers, and have now been a denizen of Missoula for almost five years. I feel that Alaska and Montana give me some cred. I now go backcountry camping and can my own tomatoes, and have had bear encounters, and can identify some plants and birds. Though really, I’m still the same city girl that the Olsons took under their wing, many years ago when I was growing up in rural Minnesota.
“You’ve never been FISHING?” they asked in alarm, their Norwegian souls cringing at the thought.
So, they took me fishing. “Here, help row the boat,” they told me. I grabbed the oars and enthusiastically slapped them into the lake with a splash. The oars skipped over the surface of the water and the force of my pull made me fall backward off the seat, oars flying akimbo in the air. I can still see Gary’s face above me in the boat, reddened by sun and laughter, big shoulders shaking in silent paroxysms.
Not to be remiss about any part of my education, they also took me snowmobiling, bundling me up in old boots, slapping a helmet on my head, and schooling me in the important differences between Arctic Cats and Skidoos. “Don’t fall off,” they instructed after we climbed onto the sled. I would grip the waist of whichever Olson sat in front of me, they gunned the machine, and we zoomed away in a flurry of ice crystals. Did they hit the bumps on purpose to see if I’d fall off? To this day I’m not sure, but fall off I did, over and over, in a tumbled snow crusted heap. I would lay there and listen to the receding roar of the snowmobile as it circled around to pick me up, and look up at the glittering Minnesota night sky.
I could go on, about the time we shot clay pigeons, and eating shit-on-a-shingle, and the many other ways that the Olsons educated me. We both enjoyed our respective roles, I think: I as the ignorant yet enthusiastic novice, and they as the seasoned outdoors-people.
I think of the Olsons as I reach for the yellow handle of the maul. I eye the round of wood and imagine what advice they would offer. “Just don’t hit your foot.” Deep breath, raise the maul over my head (my lord is it heavy!) and swing it down toward the block. Where it dings feebly and chips a tiny quarter inch deep into wood. “Aim for the crack,” onlookers call helpfully. Aim? Ha! I heft the maul again and swing, trying not to picture an axe wound in my leg.
And miraculously find the crack! The round splits in two and falls off the block. I shout in triumph, and lean the maul against the block, wipe my brow, and reach for my whiskey, grateful that my comfort this winter does not depend on my skill with a maul.