Partial to Home: A day in the woods


Birney Imes



To say you spent a day in the woods with a woodcutter sounds like the opening lines of a folk tale.  


While Mr. Clarence Smith, 73, of Mashulaville, Noxubee County, possesses other woodcrafting skills, the time I spent with him Wednesday we did little more than cut (and move) wood.  


And Smith, with his lilting drawl, distinctive ways of phrasing and knowledge of the natural world, might have come from the pages of Brothers Grimm. 


The task for the day was to remove fallen trees that obstructed trails through a hardwood forest. The surrounding cultivated fields slope toward the woods, and the run-off results in a water-soaked forest floor not able to support some of its oldest citizens. 


Driving to Noxubee in the pre-dawn light to meet Smith, I was reminded again how living in town we miss the daily miracles of sunrise and sunset. I checked my phone. It was 24 degrees, four degrees colder than Upstate New York. The landscape, blanketed with white frost, sparkled as though someone had seeded it with diamonds. 


Smith arrived wearing camo coveralls and armed with two freshly sharpened Stihl chainsaws. 


"Man, I been cutting wood all my life," he said in answer to a question about his professional beginnings. "I watched other people, and then I said I can learn the same thing, too." 


Now retired, Smith felled trees for Noxubee loggers Dan and Phillip Eaves during his working years. 


"I know how to throw a tree," he said. 


Watching him cut a 40-foot tall dead oak, then, with chainsaw in hand, leaping away like a jackrabbit as the tree exploded on the forest floor precisely where he said it would, I can vouch for that statement. 


So what's the most dangerous part of this job, I asked Smith. 


"All of it's dangerous, if you want to hear the truth," he said 


Sometime around mid-morning, as we were looking at a gigantic sweetgum, we noticed something unusual on the forest floor about a 100 yards off, a dead male deer. 


The animal's eyes were open, and, remembering stories about seemingly dead deer rising and bolting, I was cautious. 


I'm not a deer hunter, and the first thing I was struck by was how beautiful this creature was. Its fur was flecked a tawny brown, black and white. Two of its eight antler points had been broken off. There was something strangely fascinating about the animal, how it retained its beauty and elegance, even in death. 


"Look here, they've been rutting," Smith said pointing to the small trees around us with their bark scraped. 


I put my hand on the side of the animal's body. Cold. It had been dead for sometime, yet for some reason, the vultures hadn't found it. Maybe it was the dense forest canopy. 


What seems essential for a long, healthy career as a tree cutter is an understanding the tension a standing or fallen tree may be under and how to make allowances for the release of that tension. That and a healthy respect for the harm the machine you use to release that tension can inflict. 


Watching Smith cut the two mammoth trees was not unlike watching a conductor lead an orchestra or a major league pitcher warm up in the bullpen. Here is someone, a master of his craft, who works with grace and instinct. 


"I sure enjoyed that," Smith said after we'd finished and he had given me a lesson on how to sharpen the chain on my saw. "When are we gonna do it again?" 


By now the slanting rays of the winter sun had begun to wash over the landscape. Soon the fields would be a radiant orange. The oaks beyond, their leaves muted yellows and reds, final holdouts against the gray of winter. 


Birney Imes ( is the former publisher of The Dispatch. 



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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