The photo above is one my most cherished possessions. It was a gift from Gathan and Lavonda Burns, a logging family in north Alabama. It hangs in a frame made from old barn wood, next to another scene of the same man.
The man was Marsh Pence, a logger from the Ball Play community in south Cherokee County. Marsh was born in 1875. The photo was taken in 1905, about a year before he died. You do the math.
A couple of things about the photo pique my interest.
The first is that Marsh used oxen to log timber. Mules would have been cheaper and easier to care for, and I’m sure they were more plentiful in that day and age. Mules are highly intelligent, though, and are often incorrectly labeled as “stubborn,” when in truth they simply will not do things they know they cannot do. Perhaps the size of the timber solves the mystery. We have all heard “strong as an ox.” We’ve also heard “dumb as an ox.”
These oxen were named Broad, Spot, Bod, Rat, Lep, and Charlie. I reckon Charlie was the most obedient, since his name earned two syllables. I suspect Marsh was a man of few words who liked to make his syllables count.
The second is a realization of just how difficult and dangerous it was to get those logs up on that wagon. I know how he did it, but I don’t know how he did it for any length of time without being maimed or killed.
The irony is that Marsh wasn’t killed logging. He died while picking muscadines.* He fell out of a tree and onto a split rail fence, a blow that probably ruptured his appendix.
According to family records, Marsh suffered horribly through that long night. His blood soaked through the mattress, and his eyes set in death before his heart stopped beating. Those who prepared the body for burial were unable to close his eyes.
Eyes wide open. Turned out to be a hard day for Marsh.
Today was a hard day for me as well.
First I had a 7:00 a.m. business breakfast at a nearby community college to discuss the water quality of the Tallapoosa River. I’m invited to these meetings as “that forestry guy,” as in, “I wonder how the creeks are looking in the woods? I know, let’s ask that forestry guy.”
From there I went to my office where I found twenty email messages in the ol’ inbox. Ten were summarily deleted. Eight were answered with one word replies. Two required an entire paragraph.
Next on the schedule was a 60-mile journey to the home office to receive my mid-year job performance review. I was delighted to learn that I was declared competent to continue practicing forestry for wages for at least the next six months.
After the drive back home I decided to do a little deer hunting. The end of hunting season is approaching, and I have yet to pull the trigger. Saw a decent-sized deer, but I didn’t offer up a shot. We have meat in the freezer, and a fully-stocked grocery store just five miles away. If I killed something it would mean a couple of hours of hard work. Who has time for that?
Got back to the house right after sunset. Put on my gym shorts and tried to keep up with some twenty-somethings on an exercise video. I think I did pretty well, but then again no one was watching.
After a quick shower I ate a delicious supper prepared by the Redhead. Then off to my easy chair for some fake news and some mind-numbing drivel that is supposed to be entertaining.
Oh, I almost forgot, I spent about 30 minutes writing this little piece that you’re kind enough to be reading.
In a little while I’ll get ready to go to sleep by taking three different pills that allow me to do so. The doctor says I have a “restless mind,” but I think I may just be plumb crazy.
In summary, this modern life makes for some hard days.
How was yours?
Rest in peace, Marsh. My eyes are wide open too.
*For those or you who may not know, muscadines are a kind of wild grape that grow on vines which often drape from lower tree branches. They are delicious.