For my life as a woodsman, the turning came in the year of ‘52. Unbeknownst to us timber cutters, as we gave our heels to the road, heading north from the Portland docks that autumn, a great fire had swept through the forestland of Canada. We were only seeing a distant indication of its fury as we moved through the Maine frontier. A fine white ash fell like an early snow on the land. Every homesteader along our path had a tale of woe to tell. Crops withered on the vine. Being a hardy and reckless lot, we paid little heed to any troubles, be they those of others or our own. The greater the obstacle crossing our path the harder we pressed on. We made a game of scaling the up-rooted stumps of forest clearing that were strung round the fields into fence rows. Their twisted stems splayed out in confounding arrays. ‘Course, they were meant to keep the sheep and cattle to home, not wandering off where they’d be prey to wolves. And all the days, the sun was as round as a plate, its heat enough to crack a stone. Where the streambeds weren’t altogether dry, the water in them was the color of buttermilk.
The log camp we were headed for had migrated up one watershed and on to the next over many seasons. When we came to where the forest should have been, it simply was no more. In great, wide swaths the fire had consumed everything. Even below ground, through the roots of one scorched tree to the next, the fire had raged. There, at the fringe of the conflagration the others turned back, convinced that the camp and all the forest beyond were destroyed. “If it is no better let it be no worse”, I thought, and soldiered on, alone.
Wisdom comes after action. When I finally found the encampment, all was ravaged. The fire had destroyed cabins, the mess hall, and all the cached supplies and equipment. The smell was so noisome it went through the back of my head. Underfoot the ground was singed and smoldering. The sight of it all caused a catch at my heart but I didn’t linger there, I staggered on, through a wasteland of charred and splintered wood. “Somewhere,” I thought, “there must still be a living forest, and men chopping its trees.”
I walked for weeks looking for signs of a timbering operation. It took me all of that November to resign myself to the fact that it would be years before the rivers scoured themselves clean and the forest grew back. And when I couldn’t walk any more, and saw where I was, I realized I’d been unknowingly following my own long-lost footsteps. They’d taken me all the way to that same rocky coast where my navy days had abruptly ended, eleven years before. For the second time, fire put me on the peninsula. A sort of tremble came to my blood. Thought I to myself, “There must be some reason I keep winding up here.”
It’s still a mystery to me, but no worry. I’ve had plenty else to do besides wonder. For instance, there’s been the business of keeping a roof over my head, and a keg full of rum under the stairs. There are those who’ve said I attend too much attention to the latter and not enough to the former. Well, I’m not the first that drink’s made a slave of. Anyway, what need have I of a great manse on my heap of turf when this stout cottage on the harbor wall, built by my own hand, well satisfies my every need? And I’ll not deny that mine is considered the finest holding on the peninsula. More than just a few of these incomers have had a cat’s eye on it. If they had been here at the time of the fires their opinion of the place would have been some different.