One story that I heard not long ago speaks to me in a profound way about the way people impact others through small gestures – ones that acknowledge what is good and offer encouragement.
This is a story about a small act of kindness, one person sharing and teaching another, but through that act changes everything. This is an almost imperceptible moment that has rippled out into the world. The teacher has no idea, which is all the more reason I think it’s important to tell this story. We change the world without knowing it – everyone of us – with every act of kindness.
The protagonist of this story has become a woman of profound change in our community. She is a mentor, a friend, and a force that has changed my own life. I have seen her do remarkable things. She is courageous and bold. I have seen her work improve life for tens of thousands. I’ve seen her hold the hand of the suffering, unable to take their pain away, but willing to stand in witness of that moment.
There are enormous triumphs that could be written involving the unfolding work of this woman’s life. However, when asked she would tell you this is the moment that made it all possible.
The Girl Who Chops Wood By Scott Russell
Kate’s fingernails were shellacked and painted a dark forest green that set off her eyes. Her eyes were a deep blue that morning but could easily show-up as an unexpected emerald, or anything in between, depending on her mood or the light.
Her outfit was carefully picked out. A cute flannel shirt over long sleeves, a white tank top, and her jeans were tucked into new hiking books. It was a late summer trip, with seasonal temperatures expected. “Dress in layers,” was the first bullet point under “Dressing for Your Adventure.”
A new rucksack, the same one recommended by the adventure tour company, was filled with all the other items on the packing list they gave her. Each item of clothing carefully selected, rolled tightly and tucked into the pack. They even recommend an order to it, what to pack first so that it’s at the bottom – perhaps an item least likely to be required on the first day. It was all very orderly which appealed to Kate.
She loved a good checklist.
There didn’t seem to be quite enough “stuff” for three nights and four days in the woods. Her own camping trips with her husband and young family always entailed so much stuff, so many bags, toys, inflatables, cooking equipment, boat accessories, all manner of items to tame the wild and recreate some of the creature comforts of home. This was a different approach, counter-intuitive to her, but one she embraced. It reminded her of summers at the lake with her grandparents. It seemed so simple as a child, but maybe there was just as much stuff then, being fretted over by her grandmother, and lugged from the car to cottage each time by her grandfather.
This trip was going to be different for her in many ways. It was the first time away without the kids. It was the first time without her husband, Reid, since they were married 10 years earlier. At first, she wasn’t sure about the trip, signing up somewhat impulsively.
It was organized by a group of other nurses at work, imagined as part team building, part return to nature exploration. All the clinical staff on her team would have an opportunity to spend the four days getting to know each other without the daily distractions and cold institutional confines of the hospital. They would work together to build a camp, portage through the woods – they would be free of intercom systems, buzzers, bells, phones, emails and fax machines.
There would be none of the creature comforts of home. The bare simplicity of the experience promised something between a Tolkien-like heroic quest and solitary enlightenment on the mountaintop. The glossy brochure stuck in her mind for days. “Discover yourself out here,” it beckoned with images of grand landscapes, deep green foliage and people working together, smiling as they hiked and cooked over an open fire and crossed rivers in the glorious sunshine.
But something else lurked beneath the surface for Kate. One image she kept coming back to: a young woman, early twenties, maybe the same age Kate was just before she married Reid. Before the children, before she became a dance mom and dutiful wife. Before the house and the boat, the trips to Disney. Before she put her own career on hold to support Reid. The young woman in the picture was looking straight into the camera, a small streak of mud smeared down her right cheek, hair wet and sticking to her forehead. The hood of a poncho framed her face, beads of rain dripping and running over the hood frozen in the photograph. To Kate, it was the most captivating photo. She thought she knew what the young woman was thinking, feeling. She was cold and wet, yet strong and confident, holding a whole world of possibilities in her gaze.
The brochure wasn’t all sunshine. Like life, this trip was going to go on rain or shine. “Discovery yourself out here,” it invited. She signed up as soon as the first follow-up email hit her inbox. Over dinner that night she shared the idea with Reid.
“Do you think you can handle that, Kate?” Reid mocked. “There won’t be anywhere to plug in your curling iron.”
The joke stung a little. Since returning to nursing part-time after 6 years and 2 kids, there had been a number of occasions when Reid’s humour carried an edge of disdain. He was the breadwinner. Her work was a ‘hobby’ he would jokingly remind her when there was ever a conflict between the demands of his job and her schedule.
“Do you think you can handle it?” Kate shot back, “you’ll be outnumbered by the kids.”
She immediately regretted reacting, demonstrating she wasn’t as confident as she let on. He only smiled, no doubt knowing his mother would be available to help with the kids in her absence. They talked about the trip very little after that conversation.
Kate went about preparing for the adventure. Procuring new clothes, new equipment – even a new pocket knife. She read all the materials in the prep package twice. Each reading brought new unknowns and new challenges – new possibilities. She grew more excited and more apprehensive at the same time.
“Perhaps I should have thought about this or that before I signed up,” she would confess nervously to one co-worker or another.
Reid grew quiet about the adventure. Kate had resolved to go, and perhaps he sensed his kidding only served to strengthen that resolve. He decided to sit back and wait for the call, certain she’d give up on the trip and come home by day two.
The weeks flew by.
She went over the checklist one last time. The adventure of a lifetime was about to begin, she thought. She was ready, in her cute flannel shirt, and eyes of blue glazing anxiously at an unknown world emerging before her.
Wendel loved the woods. He began working as a wilderness guide after his undergrad years. He travelled up and down the west coast, but gravitated back to Ontario, when he started graduate studies. Summers in the wilderness, guiding people through the wilderness, it was a passion. He loved it. It was his calling.
“It is amazing the change you can see in humans when they unplug,” he would tell friends. “They are changed. They go back to their urban landscapes but begin to hear the pigeons that were always there but that they had forgotten because they stopped listening.”
This group, the staff team of a clinic at some hospital in the city, he forgot which one, was a good example. Twenty-four hours into the tour, Wendel was beginning to see the signs that the wilderness experience was stripping away the sanitized protective coating most people wrap themselves in. Some embrace the wild with abandon. Others confront the limits they thought were the absolute boundaries of who they are – a terrifying and sometimes paralyzing experience.
Wendel saw his job as a teacher and educator. He shared his vast knowledge of the natural world with everyone. His deepest hope was that he was facilitating a connection to the earth, source of all life, so people could find ways to reconnect to their own humanity.
The natural world is unpredictable.
Kate relished the experience. The sun on her face. The foliage, just like the brochure promised. The air, crispy and fragrant.
The first day began as planned. The group was in good spirits, eight people including Wendel, three fiberglass canoes overhead, carrying their packs and equipment about 4 kilometers. The hike took most of the morning. After a brief meal at the side of the river, they glided upriver in their canoes.
Along the way, Wendel shared stories and insights about the wildlife along the river, the plants, the changes the seasons brought. Deep into the quiet and solitude of the woods, they made camp.
It was late in the afternoon. Working as a team they made dinner. Kate led the women, 4 women in total, while her 3 male co-workers were assigned the task of securing fire wood and building the fire. They had unconsciously divided themselves into “the boys” and the “the girls.”
Wendel led “the boys” into the woods – another opportunity to educate on what should and should not be cut down to make fire.
Following dinner, they huddled around the fire, reflecting on the day, laughing and cajoling each other. Kate found herself wondering about the kids, thinking about Reid. Her worries about the trip into the wild seemed far away. She could do this, she thought. It was a long day and she was tired. But she was happy. She slept soundly in the dark confines of her tent, her anxieties disappearing into the night.
The sun rose and for a couple hours it seemed like this would be the perfect late summer day. Then the temperature began to drop, like a sinking stone, and the clouds moved in with haste. They had already broken camp and begun the next leg of their journey. They were caught with nowhere to hunker down.
The group pushed on. Wendel’s cheerful anecdotes silenced as the group’s mood sank in the storm. By late afternoon the rains finally let up. They had made it to their next site, but everyone was in a much more somber mood. And they were behind schedule. As they made camp, day light was starting to wane. Jobs were divided out with greater specialization, in the hope of settling in before nightfall.
Kate volunteered to get fire wood. Wendel led Kate out along the trail and then through a small thicket partially sheltered by the ridge that ran above the trail.
“Here he said, we can take down this tree,” his explanation trailing off as he dug out the equipment. “We don’t have much time Kate, it’ll be dark soon. We need a fire.”
Kate watched as Wendel demonstrated how to wield the axe. Two whacks and a generous chunk of wood popped out of the tree. He passed the axe to Kate.
“After we get it down, we’ll use the saw and remove the limbs,” he said. “We’ll use all the tree tonight and tomorrow. That’s important, no waste.”
He paused. Kate looked at him. He looked at the tree and back at her.
“Oh ok,” Kate said realizing for the first time she had the axe. Clearly it was her turn.
She grabbed the axe with both hands. It felt heavy and a bit awkward as she pulled it back. Then she let it fly. But the blade struck the tree at an awkward angle and turned flat against the trunk. A jolt reverberated up her arm and the handle twisted free of her grip removing the perfectly shellacked nail on her left index finger.
Kate winced in pain and dropped the axe.
“Are you ok?” Wendel asked.
“I’m ok,” Kate said, nursing her finger and trying to shake off the tingling up and down her arm.
“Good,” Wendel said. “We have to hurry.”
“Oh, you go ahead,” Kate said. “It’ll be quicker.”
“No, no, give it another shot,” Wendel said. “That’s how you’ll learn how to do it. Loosen your grip just a bit, focus on keeping the blade flat through the swing.”
Kate picked up the axe, figuring the sooner she showed him she understood the lesson the sooner they could get back. She swung again. This time the blade dug into the tree. She struggled to wrench it free and pass it back to Wendel. He put his hands in his pockets.
“Wendel, it’s your turn,” Kate said, slightly agitated. The tingling from the first swing was still dancing up and down her arm. He refused to take the axe.
“It’s not my turn, you volunteered for fire wood. I’m just here to show you how,” he said. “That swing was much better.”
Kate was uncertain what this meant, but recognized it was genuine encouragement. Kate took the axe into both hands again as she looked back at the tree. She struck again. A small wedge popped loose. She struck again, again. Another awkward angle. Tingling pain up and down both arms. She swung again. Again she struggled to wrench the blade free. Another small wedge of wood.
This is going to take all night at this rate, she thought to herself. She can’t do this. All doubts about the trip came rushing back. What was she doing here? Her feet were wet, neck and shoulders tired. She looked up at Wendel.
“You’re doing great,” he said. “But we need to move faster.”
“I can’t do it,” she said.
“You already are doing it,” he responded. “We need a fire Kate, everyone’s counting on you.”
She chopped away at the tree, enlivened with her sense of duty to the tribe, until finally it fell. She was exhausted. Her hands blistered and soar. A stabbing pain had wound its way up her arm and planted itself behind her right ear. She was exhausted.
“Great work, Kate,” Wendel beamed taking the axe off her hands, “now, let me show you how to take the limbs off.”
Kate’s felt nauseous at the thought of taking the rest of the tree apart. It was impossible. The sky was grey as twilight descended. There was a looming sense of time running out.
She watched Wendel demonstrate with the saw. It seemed so easy. She was envious. His self-assured approach to the tree, the saw in hand. She wanted some of that – the confidence that comes from being fully in the moment, unafraid of life. Isn’t that what she had come out here for? Wendel finished demonstrating how to remove the branches and passed her the saw.
“Do you think you can handle it, Kate?” Isn’t that what Reid asked, she thought as a wave of doubts washed over her. But Wendel asked the question innocently, no derision, with only empathy. He could sense her vulnerability in that moment, her fragility.
Can she handle it? She wondered. Tears welled in her eyes but she pushed them down.
“We need to hurry. Go get the others to help carry,” she said. “I can do this.”
Gripping the saw she went to work dismantling the tree as night fell. Wendel watched as she worked with fierce determination. She barely noticed as he slipped away, moving back down the trail to recruit a few more hands to collect the wood.
In the dim glow of the day’s remaining light she stood over the now fallen tree, in pieces at her feet, her blade in hand. Hands burning, arms exhausted, she surveyed what she had done, knowing something had happened to her in this moment. Something changed. She had become a girl who chops wood.
There was a fire that night, more laughter, and in the morning a world of possibilities awaited.
This is one of many stories from a wide variety of sources and a multitude of forms contributed by people upon request for my 70th birthday. They are posted without editing, with the attribution that was with them. I will be posting these regularly until they run out in the next few weeks: if you have others to add, please send them to me.