By Ox and Axe
In a wonderful parable for today's world, Paul Bunyan falls asleep for 200 years after clear-cutting a giant northern forest only to wake in a warmer, climate altered world. He quickly learns the technique of sustainable cutting and signs up for timber detail on distant colonized planets. Sort of a Paul Bunyan meets Rip Van Winkle meets Isaac Asimov.
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BY OX AND AXE
By Lisa Timpf
Appears here with the kind permission of the author.
IF YOU’VE never slept for a couple of centuries at a stretch, I don’t recommend it. Too much can change.
I suppose I should have known better than to tackle that last job. We’d taken a contract to clear a whole forest, me and Babe the Blue Ox. The two of us put our heads down and worked night and day for over a year, and we finished up just in time. When you work that hard, you need a good, long sleep.
But I must have forgotten to set the alarm clock, and the next thing I knew, I was feeling really warm.
I’d gone to bed in the autumn with my red-and-black plaid lumberjack shirt on, and it was now the hottest part of summer two centuries later. But it wasn’t just my attire that was making me feel hot. The air seemed warmer than usual.
Babe felt it too.
We’d taken our slumber in the boreal forest of Northern Ontario. We started to head south, but it didn’t take us as long as I figured it ought to, to get to civilization. As darkness fell, both Babe and I felt our spirits sink.
There were roads and lights and houses everywhere. There were trees left, sure, but not very many of them, and not as tall as they once used to grow. As for the air—well, I can’t say my memory’s perfect, but this air seemed thicker, somehow, than what I recalled—almost as if you might be able to reach a hand out and move it around like a curtain.
I sighed as I looked out over the land that had changed so much. I’d been proud of the way I could swing an axe, all those years ago. Who’d have thought that one day, houses would take root in so many places where trees once grew?
Babe took it harder than I did, and his mood toward me turned as sour as old milk. It was as though he blamed me for my part in what had happened. Finally, he up and disappeared one day. After that, I went to the wilds of Newfoundland, where there’s still a bit of green space. I’m afraid I stomped a bit on my way there, and caused some earthquakes. I’m mighty sorry if I did any damage.
When I got to Newfoundland, I sat on a rock in the middle of the wilderness and bawled for a month or so—cried so long it created a saltwater marsh that for all I know, is still there to this day. Finally, I told myself, Paul, you’ve got to pull yourself up by the bootstraps here.
I started to wander through the woods, reaching out to place my hand on a tree now and then, as if to reassure myself they hadn’t all disappeared. After I’d travelled several miles, I heard some unfamiliar noises and crept along as quietly as I could until I got to a clearing. I drew in a sharp breath as I watched the bustle of activity. I’d stumbled upon a forestry operation! Feeling my heart pounding against my ribs, I crouched down so I could hear what the men and women were saying.
Two men with French-Canadian accents were talking about a new opportunity on a planet, N-52, that was about to be opened up for colonization. It seems the planet had lots of trees, and not much in the way of the minerals and materials that would be needed for making steel or drywall, so they’d need to send a crew ahead to harvest timber to build houses and other buildings.
“Where’re they boarding?” a tall, dark-haired fellow named Pierre asked.
“Hard by Goose Bay,” his companion replied. “They’re shipping the big equipment in a separate freighter.”
With the glimmer of an idea tickling my brain, I hustled to Goose Bay. The freighter was massive, all right—it had to be, to carry the logging equipment. It looked as though there was lots of space in there. I decided to hang around for a bit, and watch. The cargo-master, he knew what he was doing, had things organized well until one of the main cranes broke down. He sent the crew home, aside from the maintenance guys, and was staring glumly at one of the big tree-cutting machines and scratching his head when I came up behind him.
“Excuse me,” I said, clearing my throat.
His eyes widened a bit, and then narrowed as he stared at my kneecap—just at eye level for him—and then he frowned.
“Who are you?” he asked, craning his neck to look way up.
I leaned over, to cut down the distance between us.
“An old lumberjack,” I replied. I didn’t say how old. I nodded toward the equipment. “Use a hand, could you?”
“We were behind deadline already,” he growled, favouring the crane with a look of disgust. “And we need this stuff loaded by sundown tomorrow to hit the liftoff window. Otherwise, she’s stuck here for a few months.”
“Maybe I can help,” I offered.
“In exchange for what?”
“Passage on the ship,” I said.
He paused, eyes narrowing. “You’ll be responsible for your own food.”
“I won’t need much,” I replied. “Where do we start?”
We worked through the night, the cargo-master and I. When the load was stowed to his satisfaction, the cargo-master ran a calloused hand through his blonde hair. “Don’t know how to thank you, Mister . . . “
“Bunyan,” I said. “It’s Paul Bunyan. But you can call me Paul.”
It wasn’t a comfortable trip, but I didn’t notice much of it. You see, I’d spent some time wandering in the Canadian North. I’d learned from the polar bears how to hibernate and from the Inuit how to prepare food that would store for long travel. I was a few pounds skinnier when we arrived at N-52, but I felt well rested.
A few days after the equipment landed, the logging crew rolled in, looking sharp and strong and keen for work. By that time, the cargo-master and I had unloaded all of the machinery, and had thrown together the bunkhouse, made of pre-fabricated materials from back on Earth.
I watched as the foreman got things underway the next day, and nodded approval. It was that fellow Pierre who I’d seen back in the forests in Newfoundland, and he knew what he was doing, alright. When a piece of equipment got stuck, I felt an impulse to rush in to help, but it had been so long since I’d worked with a crew that I felt shy about introducing myself. I decided to just observe for awhile, and stayed out of sight.
The first evening after they’d gotten to work in earnest, the crew gathered around a fire, swapping stories. I couldn’t resist sitting just outside the circle of light, listening to see if they still told tall tales like we used to. Sure enough, when it was his turn, Pierre told the story about how Babe the Blue Ox hated working in the summer, and how we painted the roads white to trick him into thinking it was winter. Thinking of Babe made me sad, and two big tears rolled down my cheeks and hit the ground.
“What was that?” That came from Marie, a brown-haired, tanned woman.
A fellow who I’d heard referred to as Roger Deerfoot threw another log onto the fire. The flames licked up higher. I blinked in the sudden light, but didn’t move back.
“Eh, Paul, is that you?” Pierre asked, the stress causing his French-Canadian accent to be more pronounced.
I nodded, afraid to trust my voice.
And before I knew it, I was getting introduced, and leaning down to shake hands with each member of the crew.
It felt good to be working again. I was glad to see that here, Pierre was using selective cutting, where we took out certain trees and left others. I helped push the equipment when it got stuck, and assisted Marie in her job of marking which trees to take and which to leave. Once, I found a giant nest of the screech owls native to N-52, and lifted Marie up to take a gander. Their wing feathers were as long as the average man is tall, and unlike the itty-bitty screech owls back home, they were large enough to be able to carry away a full-sized deer back on Earth—quite a sight, to be sure.
I enjoyed the work, and the days flew by. Finally, though, there came a time we’d finished the job. Pierre invited me to walk with him through the hills and have a talk.
“We’ll be moving on soon,” he said by way of preamble.
I stood there, still as a post.
“You could come along, you know, to the next planet,” he said. “I hear the trees are even taller there. I won’t ask you to make a decision, though, until tomorrow. The cargo-master is bringing the equipment transport in and he says there’s something he wants to give you, as a gift, for your help.” He paused. “He’s learned a lot about you, since he first saw you. He thinks you’ll like what he’s got for you.”
The next morning, when the air vibrated with the rumble of a giant ship coming in to make landfall, I ambled down to the makeshift spaceport. The cargo-master was waiting, and even from my height I could see a glint in his eye.
The transport door slowly lowered to form a massive ramp, and out walked the most welcome sight I could imagine.
The surprise he’d brought me was big. It was blue. It had horns.
And when it caught sight of me, it bellowed with joy.
“Found this big fella moping around in the forests of New Brunswick,” the cargo-master said with a grin. “I explained to him what you were up to, these days, and he agreed to come along. Turned out right helpful, too, when it came to loading the supplies.”
A crowd of grinning foresters watched the reunion between Babe and me.
After a bit, I took Babe for a walk into the woods to show him the lay of the land. It was clear from his mood that I’d been forgiven.
We climbed to the top of one of the tall, rounded hills and looked at the green trees stretching into the distance.
It was beautiful, this place, alright. The lavender sky and the bright orange sun were a constant reminder that we weren’t on Earth, but maybe that was a good thing. It would take a long time, I said to Babe, before humans depleted the forests here. Maybe never, if they kept harvesting the trees sustainably.
But I also knew that the two of us weren’t made for a life of idleness. If we stayed here, surrounded by colonists and farmers, we’d grow lonesome after a spell, I was sure of it. I headed back to camp to talk to Pierre.
“I was hoping you’d agree,” the foreman said with a grin when I told him our decision. “In fact, I was so sure of it, I tripled our coffee orders for the next planet. As long as we keep ahead of schedule, we don’t get any complaints from Head Office.”
And that’s how Babe and I set foot out amongst the stars, and created whole new sets of legends that foresters and tree-cutters tell throughout the galaxy. Like the time the Babe mistook the Milky Way for—but that’s a different story . . .
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