I was 21 years old when my father taught me how to stack wood so that the pile would not fall over. It’s a good skill to possess although I’ve only used once since that October afternoon in 1991. The pile was by the back door of our house in Ontario and we had the split wood delivered to our driveway.
In contrast, by the time my husband was 21, he’d been stacking wood since he was a young boy but really, that was just the final stage of the work he did. He’d been felling and chunking trees in the woods then delivering that split wood to other people’s driveways every winter for most of his life.
“It went a lot faster once I got my own power saw when I was 15,” Dwayne says of those cold winter days working in the family’s 300 acre woodlot in Rockley in the 1960s and 70s.
The greatest skill his father taught him? “How to fell a tree. If you’re working in the woods, you have to know the right way to fell a tree.”
Whenever we go biking through that woodlot, Dwayne tells stories about working there with his father. Hearing the affection in his voice, and the longing, I ask him why those memories mean so much to him.
“The time spent with my father,” he always answers.
He calls it both hard work and good exercise; he misses the fresh air and the camp jays that showed up every day once Donn signalled the start of dinnertime with a fire. But for Dwayne, those days of frozen sandwiches and the tea Mother put in a thermos are inexorably tied to the opportunity to bond with his dad.
“I felt that way then,” he says, “but more so now. I learned off him but as I got older, he wouldn’t admit this, but he learned off me, too.”
This is what I learn from Dwayne about this uniquely rural work: There were no wood splitters so the work was done by hand with power saws and a tractor, and the work was available for twenty years because they culled the woodlot, cutting only the largest trees. In the woods behind our house, men with heavy machinery spent one winter clear-cutting several hectares, leaving behind a mess and no meaningful memories.
The work my husband and father-in-law did together ensured the same experience for the next generation. About cutting wood years later for their personal use, Dwayne says, “I was proud and happy to have my son in the family woodlot. Likely that’s how Dad felt about me.”
Even my brief moment of working with my father taught me something about physical labour and diligence and doing it right the first time, the hallmarks of a self-made man. So I asked Dwayne what he considers his own father’s greatest strength.
“To provide for his family,” he answers. “He worked steadily. He had a gravel truck and the farm. He was selling hardwood and pulpwood. He’d come home from haying or putting in grain or trucking, have a bite to eat then go out and turn on the tractor so he could work in the headlights. He’d sharpen fence posts till 10 or 11.”
It’s not the dinnertime conversations that stay with us but the example shown: Do as I do. It’s not the skills that we learn from our fathers that matter but the point in doing what the skills allow us to do.
“My father used to say, ‘Hard work and honesty pay off’,” my husband tells me. “And he’s right. He proved it and so did I.”