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The Cut of Remorse

Jeff Ell SmallIt doesn’t take a lot of woods to turn someone into an outdoorsy type.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have tens of thousands of acres of unbroken wilderness to explore and enjoy. I love our national and state owned land that provides us with the opportunity to escape the sounds and smells of city and suburban life. Places where the stars really shine at night and it’s easy to hear the wind rustle the leaves.

But it only takes a few acres for a kid to get bitten by the outdoor bug.

If you’re like me. And my suspicion is that many of you are. Our love for the outdoors started in a postage stamp sized patch of woods or scrubby land that was not much more than a stones throw from our backdoors.

Sometimes these little parcels are in the right-of-ways of high voltage power lines or are part of a highway easement. Or like in my boyhood neighborhood, the steep cuts where they blasted through a hill to make way for a rail line back around the turn of the last century.

The railroad cut, or the “cut” as we called it, was about a half mile long and no more than 200 yards wide with a had a narrow strip of woods abutting it that was owned by an old man who had a big garden and an old barn.

Most of that land was nothing to look at. The steep hill sides were overgrown with black raspberry bushes and a tangled mop of poison ivy and sumac. In the summer all those leaves hid us from the homes that surround it, but in the winter the woods shrunk, and it was easy to see all the way through them.

But like I said. It doesn’t take a lot of land to turn someone outdoorsy.

It’s where I started my first camp fire and chopped down my first tree. It’s the place we built waterproof stick-and-leaf forts and tried to eat May Apples. It’s the place I found a dead fox and saw my first deer. I still feel bad about chopping down that big tree.

It was a couple of days after Christmas, and I had been given a hickory handled single bladed axe by my parents. When you’re fifteen years old and you have a new axe, it’s hard to wait until the next Boy Scout campout to use it.

So I met up with a friend and walked into that little patch of see-through copse and started hacking into a perfectly good white oak. I don’t know what I was thinking. To be honest, I wasn’t thinking at all. Not that any teenage boy thinks very much.

The first few chops were great. The knife sharp blade cut deep and some good size chunks quickly fell away. When I got tired I passed the axe off to my buddy and he started hacking away. Soon the chunks of wood were getting smaller and the slot we had managed to carve out was getting too narrow. We were taking a break when the old man showed up.

He was pretty mad.

If I hadn’t been caught axe handed I would have definitely lied about who had started chopping on that big oak. But we didn’t see him until he was almost standing behind us and he started yelling. I mumbled some excuse about the dead limbs up in the crown. He just stared at me, taking some slow drags off his Pall Mall. He shook his head and said we needed to finish what we started. Then he walked away waving his hand as I tried to say something else.

We chopped a little longer that day, but our juvenile arms were not up to the task. A quarter chopped oak was left standing in the woods the rest of the winter.

That spring I got a rat tail file from my dads tool box, re-sharpened that axe, and went back to the tree. It took a number of trips to finish the job. By the time it fell the May Apples were already carpeting the floor of the woods and the leaves were once again hiding my hooligan forestry.

Years later, I went back to the scene. It’s stump still looked like it had been cut down by a beaver who’s parents couldn’t afford to get it braces. Most of the branches had rotted away, but those white oaks don’t rot too quick and I was still able to walk on top of it. Smaller trees had grown up all along its length taking advantage of all that sunshine the fallen giants absence left in its wake.

After the old man died his kids sold off the land. They tore down his house and barn, and crammed seven houses onto his garden and woods. But the railroad cut it still there. And I’m pretty sure if you look close enough you might see some kids falling in love with the outdoors on that narrow wild island.

Jeff Ell is pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s the author of Ruth Uncensored, blogs at pastorjeffell.com. and can be contacted via Facebook or smoke signal.

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