This piece, also written for a Mike Jones’ class assignment at Andrews University (Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA) in 1972, reflects on my experiences during 1949 in the Bellangry Sate Forest, northwest of Wauchope, NSW, Australia. It would be best if the blurb that introduces Post 91 was read before Post 92.
The evergreen crown of the Mile Climb rises above the heads of its brother mountains. More man-like than its fellows, one arm reaches north, fingers clutching at the deep gorge of the Wilson River. The other arm stretches south for a couple of miles, but at the elbow it arches to the sunset.
The backbone of the Mile Climb divides the watersheds of two rivers. Its spine plunges for a mile to the west, pauses, rises, falls, and levels off a hundred times.
A decade ago axemen wounded the brow of the mountain, cutting down the stately Australian hardwoods. From the scab of human ruthlessness sprout the four awkward legs of a tower. In his eagle’s nest, enclosed by glass, the fire watchman overlooks a vast forest. Squinting forty road-miles to the east, he sees a wisp of gleaming sand and ships passing in the Pacific.
The Mile Climb seems to understand human life. Every day it watches men come to peer through the windows of its tower. And a home, the only home for a handful of miles, nestles close to the tower. There children of the forest play and plant their wild garden with gladioli and zinnias. The mountain is a friend to them.
Around the south ribs of the mountain, bulldozers gouged a road for men to haul logs in their groaning trucks. On one of the ribs, close below the road, perch a few khaki tents known as Kelly’s Camp.
Big Ted spent his week nights in his tent at Kelly’s Camp, often alone. By day he nosed his huge orange caterpillar tractor into the steep gorges which plunged and twisted southwest of the Mile Climb. Autumn mellowed the April afternoon as he eased his shuddering machine against a towering brush box tree and set the winch to slowly unwind its inch-and-a-quarter steel cable.
Big Ted jerked the wire through the undergrowth until he had enough length to circle the brown end of the box log the cutters felled during March. His huge frame heaved with the exertion as he scrambled uphill to stop the winch. Steel splinters bit at his rough hands as he lassooed the log.
The Cletrac’s engine roared as Big Ted made it claw uphill, winch freewheeling. A hundred feet up he backed against another box with feather orchids decorating its rough bark. The steel cable tightened and then inched the forty-foot log upward. Forward again. Winch the unwilling log, its four-foot diameter ploughing a long black scar on the mountainside.
“That winch’s is fouled up,” Big Ted announced to himself. Setting the safety brakes, he clambered down and dropped on one knee behind the tractor. For a split second his brown face froze white as the brakes shuddered free and the monster lunged at him. He dived for safety, but tripped. Rolling as he fell, a fallen sapling sheltered the back of his head.
The blade of the first track chopped across Big Ted’s shoulders. The next one caught the middle of his back. His tractor flattened the undergrowth. Its cable made the log thrash a clearing before it snapped with a metallic twang. The crunch of steel on stone was muffled by the forest. Wedged between two rocks, the big cat purred until, its tank empty, it too slept.
An evening westerly nodded the blackbutt trees far up near the crest of the Mile Climb. Did the mountain understand every man’s brief life is given in some cause?
All that winter the Mile Climb felt log-cutters at work on another of its ribs a mile east of Kelly’s Camp. Sometimes they mentioned Big Ted and his tragic death. October warmth made being wet bearable, but Joe and Art had little use for their canvas water bag that day. Every leaf of the dense underbrush added to the rain which played muted music on a million leaves.
“Here’s a spot to eat lunch,” Joe half shivered. The pair had enough space to stand beneath the shelter of a huge eucalypt, curved centuries ago when it was a sapling. The drip-line of the incessant rain was inches from their faces as Joe and Art pulled sodden bread and canned peaches from the gunny-sacks sheltering between their feet.
“There’s the next victim,” Joe jerked his whiskery chin in the direction of a blackbutt, slim and elegant among its fellows, 108 feet of millable trunk beneath the canopy of limbs. Axemen, cold from standing for lunch, wielded their axes to cut clean and deep.
The peg-and-rake crosscut saw hissed as it tore strips of wood from the slim wound in the back of the tree. Water, running down the trunk, softened the usually harsh sound of the saw. The giant teetered. But it was balanced, its fingers lightly clinging to the hands of its companions.
“I’ll get a wedge, Joe.” The fourteen-pound sledge hammer blanked out the music of the rain. Still the blackbutt only swayed. More quick, cautious rasping with the saw. Then the ring of steel on steel.
“Okay, Art, move back and be on the lookout.” Joe, approaching thirty and older by a decade, always took the crucial risks. The lookout had his job, to watch, to shout the warning. Mostly his was a cry from comparative safety.
Joe pounded the wedges again. The tree leaned slightly. Cracking splinters sounded a staccato, dominating the soft music of the rain. A few more swift bites singlehanded with the six-foot-six-inch saw.
“Run, Joe. Timber-r-r.” The cracking swelled to a crescendo as the blackbutt leaned. Joe dived into the narrow escape track through the underbrush. A long-fallen sapling, chest height, still swathed in tough vines, forced him to drop to his knees and crawl under.
One-hundred and fifty feet up a dry limb broke loose and fell, a spear hurled by the hand of gravity. The tearing of branches shrouded Art’s cry of terror as Joe’s head emerged from the tangle of vines toward the falling missile.
Joe’s tattered felt hat was inches from the free-falling spear that dug deeply into the wet soil. As the thunder of the falling tree rumbled through the forest, Joe shook the water from his sodden hat, and ran sap-stained fingers through his black hair. It was just another of the many times he assumed necessary hazards to safeguard another’s life.
Rivulets coursed seaward between the ribs of the Mile Climb. Did the mountain understand that the finest motive in man’s brief existence is to give even his life for another’s well being?
For another month the mountain felt spring growing toward summer. November sun filtered through leaves and blotched brown bodies bare from the waist up, watered by trickles of perspiration. On the south of the Mile Climb, a hundred yards past the elbow where West Road curved from south to west, a small gully grooved the hillside. Beyond it grew another blackbutt, curiously, 108 feet from stump to limbs. The shoes of two falling boards chewed at the notches in the tree as Art and Joe chopped the face-cut in this much-stouter tree.
The early summer heat made even lean men pant. And so the two rested. Art relived his dreams during those moments. The dominant color which played on the screen of his mind was the green of the mountains. The Mile Climb was only one of a thousand. On every one adventure waited to be discovered. The fur and feather and friendliness of the wilderness flashed individual frame of ecstasy. No black-and-white vision, this. Here was wild, rough, lonely, free existence. This was real life.
Enough lumber was housed in that blackbutt for several frame houses. The pile of chips on its north side was augmented by straw-colored sawdust on its east and west. But before that giant crashed to the forest floor, Art’s whole outlook had changed. There was no sudden light, no arresting voice. But the Spirit planted an unshakeable conviction. It was time to forsake a cherished dream for years of arduous preparation to serve.
Six weeks later Joe and Art walked from the shimmering baptismal waters of Lake Macquarie. Calloused hands gripped in farewell. Joe returned to axe and saw. Art stepped into a new world at Avondale College.
Joe lived for a cause, a bigger dream than adventure. He uses a chain saw now. It roars on the mountains west of the Mile Climb. But if mountains understand, they know that many a woodman’s clearest picture of God is captioned Joe. And some of those who know him best are joined to his saving Christ.
“The best experience in a man’s short earthly span is found in full response to the call of God,” Art muses on this side of graduation.
Perhaps the Mile Climb senses that Joe’s is only a faint replica of the Ultimate Pattern for every life.
A cause consumed the brief existence of the Galilean. He still beckons us to join Him. His scarred hand is imperative in its appeal: “I demand that you love each other as much as I love you. And here is how to measure it-the greatest love is shown when a person lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:12, 13, Living Bible).
That laying down may be assuming the risk in the rain-soaked bush. Or responding, “Yes, God,” on a November day. In essence, and for all, it is living to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19, RSV).
It isn’t even important that the mountain should understand. But if you understand, maybe you’ll move the mountain.
Arthur Patrick, posted 22 January 2013