I wrote this at the end of my first semester at the College of Idaho.
I land at Spokane airport. I have been throwing up almost all day. My palms are sweaty; I’m carrying a half-eaten loaf of bread (the only thing I had been able to eat). It does not feel like I’ve just gotten out of college after six exhausting weeks. It feels like I’ve been the Guinea pig in a government experiment, followed by scientists furiously taking notes.
My friend Matt had kindly offered to let me stay at his house over mid-semester break. I had gladly accepted – excited to see what life was like in North Idaho and anxious to spend a precious week away from the friendly confines of the College of Idaho’s Caldwell campus.
Now, after an unfortunately timed illness and a long plane ride punctuated by a neighbor who would not shut up about how much money he had made buying houses with subprime mortgages, I found myself about to meet matt’s girlfriend and shortly after, his family. I was not feeling entirely sociable.
Shortly after we had driven across the Idaho state border to his house, I was sitting on my borrowed bed, ready to go to sleep. I looked out the window on the skyline of Post Falls, Idaho and couldn’t help but compare it to the view of New Jersey from my mom’s apartment in New York. Jersey Never twinkles the same way that Post falls does at night – the flat land and lack of other light make each and every light switch a tapping foot, working in concert to form a staccato rhythm resonating out into the night sky.
A day later, I found myself at the helm of an ancient ford f-350 superdeisel in matt’s front yard. I was listening to Country music because (as I had learned) country music is the only thing on most radios that is still intelligible over the drone of a chainsaw in close proximity. My job was to wait until the tree’s trunk is sufficiently weakened, so that I can use the truck’s four wheel drive to pull it over. It’s a simple job, but one I manage to fail at more often than not. I learned slowly that trucks don’t like to be driven with the emergency brake on.
After we managed to fell the tree, I grabbed my smaller chainsaw out of the back and began to cut branches off. Wielding a chainsaw gives trees a whole new and much more impermanent presence. Matt and I relieve the tree of its branches in five short minutes before cutting up the tree’s trunk and moving on to clear out young saplings from the rear quarters of his ranch.
“We’ve got to make sure the trees are evenly spaced” he says as he indicates five, six, seven trees that I should cut down “this way we can protect against this whole forest going up in flames.” At first, it’s a tough sell to me that killing trees is actually beneficial to trees, but it begins to make sense once I imagine myself in the middle of a burning forest. The floor of the forest is thickly coated with dried pine needles, and would swiftly ignite with any provocation, since there is not much rain up here and the needles are almost an inch thick on the ground. It’s not hard to imagine this quickly becoming a carpet of fire.
As I cull the herd of its weaker members, the imagined fire is much less damaging, especially since we are also lopping off the lower branches of the trees. Likely, the gravest impact that flame will have on this ranch is to scar the trunks of several trees and expose the topsoil to the elements, since the carpet of pine needles will inevitably burn off.
I am beginning to see that this selective thinning is entirely necessary to protect both the forest and the family who lives in a house a short distance from the forest. Further, after bringing innumerable trees to an early doom, I am beginning to feel the hunger within my person begin to reverberate. Matt is hungry too, we drive back to the house and call that day’s chores quits.
Later on that night, I am told that I have chanced to arrive on the night of Matt’s older brother’s birthday. There is to be a large family dinner later that night. In the leadup to dinner, I am a curiosity. Matt’s family seems convinced that their particular brand of living – to maintain your land yourself, to ask guests to work for their supper – is so insane as to be repulsive to visitors. They principally cite the example of the last person who went up to their house for the first break of his freshman year, who did not set foot there again until Matt’s brother got married…a short four years later.
As it came to be close to dinnertime, it was interesting to see how people focused exactly on what they were interested. Matt’s little brother scurried about ensuring that the potatoes were hot and the napkins were well adjusted. Matt excitedly played with his little cousin (the only girl in the local unit of their family) while his mother attempted to bring a semblance of order to the kitchen.
Finally, we sat down to eat. I sat at the children’s table and we all joined hands for what I anticipated would be a standard grace. About twelve millionths of a second into a grace that was both nonstandard and jarringly well memorized, I realized both that I was far, far away from home and that a family which was so sure of its extreme dysfunctionality was indeed highly functional. They had successfully put together a large family gathering without conflagration; a rare feat for any family, and they were showing their support for each other in a way that is admirable in modern times. As I sat silently though their grace (which was sung in harmony), I reflected on this and wondered how I would have turned out had my family sung grace at dinner each day. As I finished that thought, a lull came in the grace which I mistook for the ending. I sat down and began to eat, while the family sang “Amen” three times and I burst out laughing. Matt’s older brother looked over at me and said “Maybe next time we’ll say Jewish grace”