When I learned to use a chainsaw, I was 23, on my first National Park Service trail crew, and in well over my head. I’d gotten hired on a pure fluke, and, hoping that my incompetence would be ignored long enough for me to get good at something–anything–I kept quiet and watched everyone. Our shop tech was Sherri, a 5’1 woman with a blonde ponytail whose end pointed like an arrow tip between the back pockets of her Carhartts. Sherri taught me to start a Stihl 026 (the smallest full-sized saw on the market then, christened “The Lady Logger” by the brawny guys who could have used it to shave.) She was patient while I pulled and tugged and sweated and blushed with pressure and shame until, after 20 minutes–more?–I finally got the thing started, its roar startling me so thoroughly that I almost dropped it on the gravel parking pad. That was the inauspicious start to a love affair that would deepen over the next two decades of chainsaw-based labor.
This past summer I taught a basic saw class to the Panguingue Creek Fire Brigade, the all-volunteer group in my rural Alaskan neighborhood. A local woman attended–Barb, a fellow tai-chi group member whose husband had died unexpectedly the year before–and brought along her daughter, Emily, a recent high-school grad to whom the task of family firewood gathering had fallen in her dad’s absence. The group circled around the logs I had laid out on the ground for basic bucking lessons. Barb had a hard time starting the saw in her arms so I showed her the ground-start/foot pinch option, better for weaker upper bodies and early-user timidity. She gamely persisted past the initial discouragement and when the saw finally growled to life and idled at her feet, the group cheered. Passing the saw to Emily, Barb grinned like a kid at a birthday party. Her daughter held the saw in starting position, handle pinched between her knees, and, coached through two or three sharp short pulls, she started it easily. Barb’s smile got bigger: “Wow, Emily!” she said. “Impressive!” And it was.
Along with a handful of other neighbors, Barb and Emily went, in two hours, from the arms-length, self-abasing terror that had characterized my own first attempts with the chainsaw to enough confidence that I could encourage them to buck their own firewood that weekend. They left knowing how to check the chain tension and tighten it if it came loose, how to stand with the saw to one side while bucking, how to measure out a face cut. They headed home to take on a job that a beloved husband, a missed dad, used to do.
I love teaching people how to use a chainsaw, or how to use one better, more safely, with grace instead of machismo. I love teaching men–salty old-timers who built their own cabins but don’t know how to sharpen chain properly, young ranch kids who can fix saws but have never felled a tree, guys new to the woods who are hoping for a quick study to conceal their inexperience from the buddies they’re supposed to go cut firewood with the next weekend–but I love teaching women best. Maybe because they are usually eager, easy to coach, and likely to show the tool the respect it deserves. Partly because the payoff is often high, their turn from intimidated to confident so surprising to them that they leave a class with an inner esteem boost in addition to a technical skill. And definitely partly because it reminds me of me, my own lurching path to competence, the mentorship inherent in any learned task. The way a skill–sought, honed, and cherished–can sometimes wrest confidence from loss.