Andre kept wheeling the logs I stacked onto the little red hand truck to the rear of his stock trailer carving tracks into the dried cow manure that covered the wood planks of the floor. My loading and his hauling became a rhythmic ebb and flow broken only by me stumbling over logs that rolled on their own recognizance from the supply pile under my clumsy feet. We worked the pile from here to there for nearly three hours stopping once to sit on the tail board and enjoy a pair of Silver Bullet barley sodas that Andre had squirreled away in an Igloo cooler tucked behind the driver seat of his truck. When the trailer looked to be squatting to the level of a load of Andre’s fat cows we stopped. Thinking we tossed in three and a half to four cords or elm wood meeting the weight limit of the rig, Andre closed the rear gate.
All plans were in place to leave early Friday morning promptly 6:00 a.m…. we pulled away from the house at 6:52 sharp as scheduled.
6 hours 29 minutes later we were in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation at our Rendezvous point in the parking lot of Our Lady of the Sioux Catholic Church. A white Ford Expedition pulled into the parking lot along with several other vehicles. Waylon, a Lakota and resident of the Rez who I’ve become friends with over the past year stepped out of the Expedition, I greeted him with a hearty handshake. Waylon matched my handshake with a hearty warm bear hug. Then Woman Who Stands Alone Sacred, also known by her white name Aurelia, a Tipi Raiser board member introduce Andre and I to 20 people from the Washington DC area. This group is completing a week of volunteer work with the Tipi Raisers, a non profit committed to helping the Oglala Lakota people smooth the edges of Reservation life just a little with a loving dose of stewardship.
While Andre and I were driving up from Colorado in an air condition pickup cab this group had spent the day under the hot and humid South Dakota sun hiking on the muddy trails of the Reservation's Badlands and building the walls of a small house that will someday shelter Waylon and his family. Certainly my knees and legs were stiff and sore from sitting too long on the drive. The volunteer's muscles burned from walking miles and swinging hammers in the heated wind that sucked the water from their bodies. So it came as a surprise to me under the blue sky and baking sun in the parking lot when I said, “Hi I’m Joe and this is Andre and you all get to unload all the wood we threw in this trailer last night”. Not a one of them balked, groaned or got little pissy pants about my offer, though most of them fetched themselves a drink of water and went to the bathroom before we formed a Caravan to the drop point.
We pulled onto a washed out rutted driveway that climbed a hill to a small white house with a red tin roof. Two horses were tied out in the yard uncomfortably suspicious, twitching with peaked ears at our arrival. Three dogs ran down to greet us and celebrated our arrival with enough enthusiasm to bring Norbert out to the drive in his Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots and white pearl snap button up shirt and his arms osculating back and forth in huge welcoming waves.
Norbert is a light framed sixty plus year old Northern Arapahoe man from the Wind River Agency in Wyoming. He married a Lakota woman who gave him beautiful sons. His wife of many years recently died of cancer. Norbert worked training horses until his arthritis made it difficult to do any regular work. He calls himself “retired mostly”.
Norbert identified a convenient place to unload the wood about 50 feet from where Andre could back the trailer. The volunteers formed two parallel lines behind the trailer. I joined a couple of the volunteers inside the trailer and fed two fifty foot daisy chains of people passing logs down the line growing a once absent pile of firewood larger. It was a bucket brigade of sorts moving logs instead of bucketed water to a wood stack instead of a consuming fire. As the dust generated from the dried manure on the trailer floor settled onto my sweaty arms and neck, and laid down a scratchy film on the back of my throat and an organic nucleus for eye crustys to form and snot to build formidable buggers in my nose the pile of wood in the trailer quickly got smaller. In under forty minutes the trailer was empty and a handsome pile of firewood sat in the green grass anticipating a cold winter ahead.
My grandma championed the phrase “many hands make light work”. This joyous upbeat corps of beltway volunteer’s took the word “work” out of the entire process and replaced it with fellowship.
With age comes wisdom and a cranky back. Norbert, a Native American and retired horse trainer and Andre, a cowboy and a retired engineer, very well read on Native American history, stood in the drive and “supervised the unloading” while deep in conversation forming connections from the primordial power of The Human experience. Norbert with his infectious smile kept clasping his hands together and bringing them to his chest saying “this is a good day, this is a very good day for me.”
To the indigenous people fire is cleansings and renewing. Fire symbolizes the heart of people and smoke carries prayers to the Great Spirit and the ash becomes new growth, new thoughts and new ideas. This wood moved by the love of many will be the core of a fire that heats a home and lifts the spirit this winter. The symbol for fire is a circle, and a circle is a model of life very fitting when I think of the journey these logs have made.
The group honestly earned an appetite and worthy of being tired loaded into cars and faded off down the drive. Andre and I stood scouting out a path to back the trailer down the rutted drive to the highway while Norbert again expressed his gratitude with his smile, hands clasped together forming a double fist over his heart repeating “This is a good day, this is a very good day for me”.
The three dogs were less enthusiastic about our leaving and ambivalently laid in the shade of a tree watching our departure.
Aurelia or Woman Who Stands Alone Sacred, a beautiful name for a genuine person, invited Andre and I back to where the group was staying for a meal and fellowship before we headed back to Colorado. I sat forking my way through a hamburger patty brushed with some beans and rice and listened to the conversations going on around the table. No doubt this has been a week of labor for the volunteers but I could tell their shared experiences of selflessness and hearted labor have been good for the soul from the melodic voices filling in the spaces of the dinning hall.
Back in January I felled the first of 137 elm trees on the lot that will become the new Pike’s Peak Veterinary Clinic. When the tree hit the dirt I thought something good, something spiritual must come of this tree's wood. The Lakota people pray mitakuye oyasin which means we are all connected. This was the second load of wood sent to the Rez on the 400 mile ribbon of asphalt that connects Colorado Springs to Pine Ridge, this is the first load I got to see being received.
“This is a good day, this is a very good day for me.”
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