Work in the woods: brutal, private, changeless. We sling rigging along a steep, redwood-lined canyon, islands of alluvial flats holding some modest chunkers, then up a narrow draw to the east. Even in clear weather, only a few hours of sunlight will fall across our backs. Nothing dries out.

A hundred years ago we might have been pulling out the big wood, the old growth. Today, we rebuild a pedestrian bridge. A bad fire ripped through here a few years back. The winter that followed relieved a five-year drought but brought landslides and the closure of a significant stretch of the only paved road, in or out, for months. Uncertainty and caution close most everything now.

Days on the side slope—shorthand for a specific suffering contingent upon soil types, relative humidity, precipitation patterns, hillslope—and always the work. For what we control, manually hoisting a seventy-foot-long, four-thousand-pound bridge stringer through the air and onto its abutments up canyon, we are deliberate, steady, aware. We work as folks always have, wresting a life from what this earth proffers, spending the best of ourselves, sometimes extravagantly, offering up the full bloom of youth that, as my knee and shoulder never allow me to forget, for me has already passed.

After the day, the world beyond this canyon reasserts itself: emails, memos, notices, bulletins, headlines, worry. In our daily debrief, a new mother asks if anyone has seen baby wipes where they shop. Someone says to prepare to spend over an hour in line at the grocery store. We joke about the old slang of toilet paper being “mountain money.” Another says that with the campground closed they’ve noticed more scrub jays hanging around. Questions of furloughs or layoffs, medical leave options, supply availability, checkpoints, testing locations. Are we working tomorrow? Next week?

We return to spike camp, a lamplit canvas tent with a small wood-burning stove. An old dark barn and the darker ocean, city lights across the bay. A familiar owl in the pines. Frogs, bobcats, a heron still in the saturated field as the stars come on. Our routine: wood cutting, food prep, dish washing, sanitizing, disinfecting, filtering water, taking an hour or two of firelight to trade jokes, embellish a familiar story, muse on history and home, what awaits. How before dawn we will rise, with gratitude, to answer what tomorrow waited all night to ask.

Published on April 23, 2020