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Rough Measure

Early morning in the woods

In the morning I plant trees at roughly equidistant intervals along the tractor road that skirts the southern fringe of the grassy knoll behind the barn. I dig the soil with a pointed spade, loosen the dirt with my hands, set the roots gently into the hole, and backfill with a mixture of the loosened soil and compost from a plastic bucket I’ve carried with me. It is cold and damp, though from my vantage point I can see a fair distance toward the northwest, where the clouds are breaking in a way that suggests the weather might soon turn. I hope it turns. I could use it to turn.

I settle the last of the trees, scrub my hands clean in wet pasture grass, watch woodsmoke rise from the chimney of our small house. There’s only a few more mornings worth of dry firewood left to burn, then we’ll be onto whatever scraps we can muster, mostly lumber cutoffs and softwood slabs from the logs we had milled a couple summers back. My goal of having extra dry wood has eluded me once again, and I think that on some subconscious level I must know in advance exactly how much wood we’ll burn in a given year, because although I only ever take rough measure, every spring we seem to run out at exactly the same time. Which is always sooner than I’d hoped, to be sure, but also always later than presents any significant hardship.

The front door of the house opens, and our son emerges, on his way to work. I, too, have places to be, so I give my hands one more pass through the grass, rise to my feet, and get on with my day.

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Crashes

Friday evening is cold and rainy and I drive to the top of the mountain road to hike into the spot I’d discovered by ski three months prior, where I’d counted nine moose beds in an area perhaps the size of a football field. The rain is insistent and I’m soon soaked through and cold; I’ve under-dressed as usual, while simultaneously over-estimating my own sturdiness in the elements, which is also as usual. But I make it to the moose yard in rapidly diminishing daylight, night coming fast, and the mist further obscuring my vision. I’d hoped to see a moose, but now I realize I’d have to be much closer than would likely be allowed, and so I don’t look very hard and instead just ramble until I’m really too cold to carry on and it’s getting darker and I still have a 40-minute hike back to the truck.

Driving down the mountain road I come to a turned-over car, in a deep ditch, driver’s side down, the roof smashed against an abutment of soil and rock. There is no other traffic. I stop the truck, climb out. The car is not running, and the juxtaposition between the crashed vehicle and the rainy, mist-shrouded quiet in the scant remains of natural light feels ominous. I cannot see into the car; all I can see is the underside, a complicated terrain of exhaust and brake and transmission.

I call out. There’s no reply. I call again. Still no reply, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to climb atop the wreckage, where I should be able to see through the side glass, when the passenger door begins to open just a little, straight up into the air. It opens a few inches, then closes, then opens a few more inches, then closes, almost as if whoever’s inside is trying to gather their strength for the final push. And I call out again – hold on, I can help – (though I still haven’t figured my path to the top of the car) when the door opens a few inches further and a man pulls himself up and out. He’s groaning and disoriented, but ambulatory, and, to my delight, smoking a cigarette, which looks freshly lit. I can’t help but wonder if he crashed while lighting the cigarette, or if he lit the cigarette after crashing.

He jumps down from the car and stumbles into the woods, and I think he’s either drunk or in shock, it’s hard to tell which. Maybe it’s both. I ask if he’s ok. He says he’s ok, and improbably, he does seem ok. I mean, the car is fucked, there’s no two ways about it. It’s a bad crash. He makes his way over to me and I ask outright if he’s drunk and he says no, and I believe him. He doesn’t smell of alcohol and now that he’s standing near me and no longer wandering disoriented through the leafless trees, he seems quite sober. He’s still smoking that cigarette. We stand there quiet, watching the car. As if it were going anywhere. I can give you a ride, I say, at pretty much the same moment we notice the patterned flashing of emergency lights from higher up the mountain road. Someone has called in the accident, which means that someone must have passed the accident before I arrived, since no one has passed since. Which means he must have been sitting in the crashed car for a while; the emergency vehicles are from a town in the valley to the east, some 25 minutes away. So he had to have lit that cigarette after he’d crashed. I don’t know why I’m stuck on this detail, but I am.

I ask if he wants me to stay, but he says no, he’ll be ok, and so I leave just as the emergency vehicles pull up, and for starters I’m thinking about the image of him folded into the wreckage of his car, lighting a smoke and maybe trying to figure out if he’s hurt or not, and I wonder if he was just hanging out in there smoking when the car that called 911 passed. Hard to say.

And I’m thinking about the fact that this is the third bad accident I’ve been the first to discover on this very road in just the past handful of years. I wrote about one of them a few years back, it’s in the archives somewhere if you’ve got some time on your hands. The other was an elderly couple, I actually saw the crash happen, and I was able to crawl into the back seat of their car (the front doors rendered inoperable by the force of impact with the tree) and sit with them while we waited for the ambulance. The man was folded over the steering wheel making deep guttural groans, unable to form a sentence, and the woman said her arm was broken, but she was mostly worried about her husband, whom she told me had a heart condition. But honestly even without the heart condition, he didn’t sound too hot. Will you stay even after they come she asked me, after we’d been sitting together for 20 minutes or so, and I said yes, of course. Then we heard the sirens and she asked me to fix her bra strap so it didn’t fall completely off while they were pulling her out of the car. So I did, and she said thank you for staying, and I never saw them again.