Modernity Comes With A Bang

by Bruce Patterson, July 13, 2010

Even before his Arkansas razorback hog started help­ing, Lew had always gotten a big kick out of plucking tree stumps. Just cuzz there weren’t any easy way of doing it didn’t mean it couldn’t be fun once you got the knack. Then if a dirt farmer couldn’t kick a shovel, or swing a maddox and ax, how was he supposed to have the muscle to milk his cow, steer a plow or dig potatoes? The plain fact was that hard physical labor, if properly directed and compensated, was good for the soul. And plucking stumps to clear land for crops was the sort of compensation a fellah could seriously sink his teeth into, chew on and savor. Folks would always need food.

A tree grew like an upside-down potato, and its roots were like a bunch of long skinny fingers reaching down and grabbing a hold of the dirt. Since even a tree stump needed someplace to fall, the first step was to dig a hole under the side you’d be pulling against. You’d ax through the roots in your way and, if it was the sort of tree to have a taproot, you’d burrow down until you could cut it free. Then you’d switch over to the backside and do the same except not so deep. Next you’d dig out the sides enough to give your animals a fair chance of being able to tip it. Considering how they had more than a few good tugs in them, there was no use in you digging anymore than you needed to. If you chained your ani­mals to the stump and jack and they weren’t strong enough to lay it over, at least you’d get a fair idea of how much more digging you had to do.

After your animals had tipped over the stump, you’d whack at its root wad with your maddox until the dirt was knocked off it. After you’d cut away whatever roots still holding it, at a prance your animals would drag it over to your burn spot and add it to the pile. Once the stumps had seasoned for a year or five, conditions were right and you got the hankering, you’d go out and glower at that ugly pile of tree stumps, it’d burst into flames and leave you with plenty of ashes to use as you pleased. Lastly, if you were like Lew, you’d plant some fruit trees there. Trees loved burnt dirt and soon enough you’d have more fruit for your hog.

With all its slopes and wrinkles, a mountain acre was a whole lot bigger than a flatland one. And if your acre was, like Lew’s, on the shady side of the mountain, then it might have 100 or more trees growing on it, some soft and shallow rooted like buckeyes and nutmegs, and oth­ers hard and tenacious like black oaks and pepperwoods. So there was no counting just how much Lew’s hog helped him when it came to plucking stumps, other than to fairly admit that he got most of it done by his self. He was a pleasure to work with, too. Like Lew’s windmill pumping water up on the hill above his cabin, that old hog kept turning and turning. And if he came upon any­thing he thought Lew might take an interest in, why he’d stop digging, freeze and point at it like a bird dog, his coiled tail stretched straight.

One time his hog froze and pointed, Lew came over to have a look and there inside a burrow under the stump was a pair of baby raccoons staring back up at him with shining button eyes.

“We’ll leave this stump till morning,” Lew informed his hog, pissing on the stump so there’d be no mistaking his scent. “Old mama will come back tonight to fetch them cubs up by the scruffs of their necks and carry them to their new home.” After nodding agreeably, his hog took up Lew’s tools in his jaws and trotted along behind him to the way over yonder just as happy as could be.

So when Lew bought the sticks of dynamite out the saddlebags of that traveling salesman, it wasn’t because he wanted to stop partnering with his hog, much less get rid of him. What swung him around was considering how, freed of most of his stump plucking duties, his hog could focus on skidding logs. That’s where the money was. As an added benefit, once the sun was down and everybody else was relaxing, his hog would be out there peeling the bark off them logs and getting himself a full belly to boot.

After Lew had pointed out to the salesman the big­gest buckskinned redwood stump standing in his way and asked him how many sticks of dynamite it’d take to pop it, as promised, out the ground like popcorn, the salesman assured him it’d only take two. Lew took that to mean three and, wanting to be on the safe side, decided to use four all tied together. Figuring there’d be no harm in getting a rise out of his neighbors, he also decided to set off his explosion at last light. Imagining his neighbors easing down into their beds only to get themselves jolted right back up out of them put a grin on his face.

He hadn’t counted on the night being so ungodly cold, though, and wondered if the wet sticky frost would muffle his bang. Surely he’d best fire up his barn’s pot­bellied stove and bring in his animals for the night to keep them from catching cold. So while he’d planned on waiting till the last liddle biddy bit of daylight before setting off his explosion, shivering in his boots sped him up some. He low-crawled down into the tunnel his hog had dug for him, it ended at a little shelve directly under the buckskin, and next to it was a handy pile of rocks his hog had gathered so Lew could pack them around his charge. After attaching three feet of fuse to the sticks and lighting it, low crawling backward up out of there, get­ting his feet under him and clodhopping to cover, Lew bent down and held his ears.

Except, there weren’t no explosion. After waiting and waiting and finally realizing he needn’t cover his ears any longer, he let go of them and scratched his head, wondering what went wrong. Staring at that old buck­skinned stump still standing there and considering how long he’d wanted to be rid of it, he figured waiting a lit­tle longer wouldn’t hurt him none. Deciding to leave it till morning, he moseyed on back home to fire up his potbelly and get his animals inside his barn. But, when he let his hog out his pen, instead of behaving himself, he took off running into the night. Since all the bugs, vermin and forest critters knew to stay out of his pen while he was in residence, he often did that on account of being famished. So Lew thought no more about it, knowing he’d come back in his own sweet time.

Once his fire was crackling and his animals bedded down, Lew propped open the barn door with a block of wood so his hog could swing it open with his snout in­stead of having to plow through it with his forehead. Then Lew went inside his cabin, washed up and hit the sack.

After getting diverted long enough to gobble up a squirrel, possum and pair of tom turkeys, the hog made a beeline for the dynamite buried under the buckskin. Why that was, nobody knew, although some highly suspected it was the scent of saltpeter that drew him. Whatever it was that had possessed him, he went and ate every last one of them sticks, crunching and swallowing them like carrots. And then, his full belly turning sour, he moseyed on back to the barn, went inside and lay down bellied-up to the crackling potbelly.

The explosion blew out Lew’s cabin windows, knocked him clean out of bed and slammed him headfirst into the wall, putting a painful crick into his neck. The explosion was so loud his neighbors came ah-running wondering what in tarnation, and John got there first. He found Lew leaning like a rag doll on the smoking remains of his corral fence, shaking head back and forth and mournfully muttering to himself. When John asked him what happened, Lew wearily turned and said,

“My barn’s been blown to bits, my horse, mule, cow and half my chickens are dead, my porch dogs have run off and…” Lew had to pause to contain himself, “my old hog has one hell of a bad bellyache.”

(Books, stories and snapshots at www.4mules.com)

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