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Posts Tagged ‘backcountry’

Today I am a redneck, and I will be again tomorrow.

By Wednesday, it should start to peel.

While I was away, Duke Energy decided to cut down a tree in my front yard.  Fair enough; the tree was clearly dying, and they did so at no charge.  The crew they sent to do the job, though, left a mess of logs and limbs, matted grass and crushed flowers.

I decided to see not inconvenience, though, but opportunity.  For the last several years, I’ve read and written about the early Southern frontier, from Jamestown to the American Revolution and beyond.  Chopping, splitting, and hauling wood was a central fact of life through almost all of the South for three centuries, and it’s half-past high time that I try my hand at it.  Saturday morning, I went and got my ax and my maul out of the storage shed, spat on my palms, and got to work.

To make a long story short – actually, the story itself is short; it’s just the day that was long – I went to bed Saturday night blistered, calloused, sore and sunburnt.  I also, at some point during the day, had entertained the following thoughts (in no particular order):

  • Drop me – 2012 me, not some alternate 18th-century version of me – in the Southern backcountry before the invention of the chain saw and/or pre-fab housing, with my shelter dependent on my industry and skill with an ax, and I’m going to spend a lot of nights sleeping under the stars before I’ve chopped enough for a hovel, much less a cabin.
  • Alternate 18th-century me, though, would almost certainly have been raised to that kind of work, and would have had a rudimentary cabin built in a day or two.
  • My most glaring lack for this job wasn’t the strength or the stamina, but the skill – to find the cut lines where the wood will split easily, to strike those lines true with every swing, to spot and avoid the punky wood that won’t split no matter how hard or often you hit it.  I learned and improved as the day went on, but I would have saved lots of time and gallons of sweat if I’d known all that when I started.
  • Not that some more strength and stamina wouldn’t have come in handy.  In 1750, the average adult American male was half-a-foot shorter and about 50 pounds lighter than me, but I wouldn’t want to arm wrestle that guy if he worked like that on a regular basis.
  • Which makes me wonder about the early settlers who weren’t raised to that kind of work – the transported convicts and indentured city dwellers and skilled tradesmen who’d never had to use an ax or maul.  How often did – if not survival, then the course of the rest of their lives, depend on how quickly they learned; or how hard they were willing to work to overcome their handicaps; or whether or not they had kindly, knowledgeable neighbors?  If a settler needed two or three times as long to build a cabin before he could start to clear fields and plant crops, was he stuck behind the curve of prosperity, never able to catch up?
  • I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s astonishing how much wood comes from a single, medium-sized tree.  My tree (a red oak, by the way) was a toothpick compared to the oaks and maples of the great old-growth American forests the early settlers found.  Even so, one two-foot-long section produced enough split shingles for two wheelbarrow loads.  A friend of a friend who heats his home with a wood-burning stove has filled a cargo van three times, and there’s still at least two more van-loads in my yard.
  • Yet we almost deforested America, as the English did Ireland.
  • I have seen several log or half-timbered houses and barns that have managed to survive to the present day.  I have never been as impressed by their construction as I should have been.
  • David Hackett Fischer, citing the OED, says that ‘redneck’ was long used as “a slang word for religious dissenters in the north of England,” and quotes North Carolina’s Anne Royall, who in 1830 “noted that ‘red-neck’ was ‘a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians.’”
  • Others trace this use of the term back to the Presbyterian Covenanters of 17th century Scotland, who wore red scarves or collars.
  • Meanwhile, in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, F. N. Boney of the University of Georgia says the term ‘redneck’ “did not come into common usage until the 1930s,” and “is usually a negative expression describing a benighted white southerner.”  He locates the term’s origins in the blazing sun under which their ancestors worked.
  • I suspect that both meanings and histories of the word are correct, and interchangeable, since the populations described so often overlapped on the Southern frontier.  It’s also entirely possible, if not downright probable, that the first meaning was forgotten entirely over time, and the term re-invented with only the second meaning in mind.
  • Either way, it’s absolutely certain that any and all etymologies of the word were utterly irrelevant that Saturday evening, when the hot shower water hit my red neck.  Land o’ Goshen and my stars-and-garters, that hurt.
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