Life in the Big Woods by Martha Woodroof

Ten years after my second divorce and one year sober, dreaming of companionable days and zooming up to a net worth of zero, Charlie asked me to marry him and I said yes.

It was an act of reckless selfishness. I had no history of peaceful co-existence with a man; no demonstrated ability to function as part of a team, take things as they come à deux. But true love will rise up and conquer common sense even after forty, and one fine September day Charlie and I were married by Rappin’ Ray, minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Amherst, Virginia.

Forest of trees
Uphill with Logs by James Helmnski. CC license.

Charlie had saved a little money, and we used it to buy land; 11.5 acres of woods, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of acres of logging forest; home to pileated woodpeckers, bears, snakes, foxes, wild turkeys and very few other people. To have something to live in, we bought a trailer at a bank auction, an ancient repo—its former owner long-gone. Nobody else bid on it, so the bank let us have it for $750. We hauled it out to the land and moved into it with no electricity and no running water. I remember feeling as though this wasn’t real life; that Charlie and I were playing some elaborate childhood dress-up game called PIONEER MARRIAGE. Or that we’d moved permanently to summer camp. I’d never felt so free. And why shouldn’t I have, as—according to Kris Kristofferson, anyway—freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Naturally, as we had no running water, we had no indoor plumbing. And no outhouse, either, as our land perched atop an impenetrably rocky ridge. Charlie—ever the resourceful one in practical matters—organized a very efficient outdoor privy system that involved heading off into the woods with a flashlight and the officially designated sanitation shovel.

One warm night I heard Charlie yell from outside. It was not a panicked yell as much as a pay-attention-right-now yell. I put down the book I was reading by lantern light, stuck my head out the window, yelled back. “What?” I could see his flashlight bobbling around through the trees maybe fifty yards from the trailer.

Light brown southern copperhead snake
Southern Copperhead by Natalie McNear. CC license.

“Bring the ax down here!” Charlie shouted. “I’ve trapped a copperhead.”

A copperhead!!!! Angels and ministers of grace defend us. Copperheads were probably the most deadly of our fellow woodland inhabitants. Certainly the most aggressive.

“I’m on my way,” I called, grabbing another flashlight.

I ran outside and around to the end of the trailer under which we kept our garden tools. My flashlight needed new batteries; its light was dim. I rummaged around in its faint glow, grabbed what I thought was the ax, took off into the woods.

The officially designated sanitation shovel’s blade had been worn or chipped; it was both dull and convex. Charlie, I found, had indeed pinned a copperhead inside its curve, caught six inches behind its head. The snake was twisting around, flailing at both ends, trying hard to reach something—anything—to bite with one end or whip with the other. Charlie leaned on the sanitation shovel, his feet as far back as he could get them and still maintain leverage. If he hadn’t married me, he could have been stuck there forever.

Charlie shone his flashlight on the tool I’d brought. “That’s the maul, not the ax,” he said in his patient voice.

I looked down. Sure enough, it was the maul. “I’ll go back,” I said.

“No,” Charlie said. “But you’ll have to hold the shovel. That thing’s heavier than an ax. I can’t swing it accurately enough with one hand.”

I looked down at the thrashing snake. Was this what I’d signed up for when I married Charlie?


“Come on!” he said, now with some urgency in his voice. “Grab the shovel so I can swing the maul.”

Hatchet and hammer on the ground
Tools of the Trade by Alan Levine. CC license.

I braced my feet (in flip flops, as I remember it) grabbed the shovel’s handle, pushed harder than I’ve probably ever pushed in my life.

Charlie let go, stepped back, raised the maul, brought it down on the snake’s back as close to the shovel’s blade as he could manage. The snake was now a head and a tail with a mass of pulp in the middle. Its head, however, was still trying to bite; its tail to whip the dickens out of something, anything.

“Pick up the shovel!” Charlie ordered. “It’s in my way.”

I looked down at that writhing head. Could a copperhead strike with only pulp for a spine? Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Not yet, anyway.

I picked up the shovel.

Charlie swung the maul with both hands, brought it down with a mighty whap on the snake’s head.

And that was that. The snake was finally dead. All-the-way dead.

“Thank-you,” Charlie said.

I said, “You’re welcome.”

Later that night, lying awake, I thought about marriage in the abstract; about what made some work well, others not so well. And then it came to me that I really did think too much. About marriage, anyway. Here Charlie and I were, living in a derelict trailer with no running water, successfully battling copperheads in the dead of night. What a team! Surely we could roll with anything life cared to throw at us? Surely it was okay for me to relax and enjoy life with Charlie?

And so I have.

So far, anyway.

Martha Woodroof
Before turning to public radio and writing novels, Martha Woodroof co-owned restaurants, did a bit of acting, was fired as a magazine editor, hosted local TV talk shows and anchored the news, wrote a book called How to Stop Screwing Up: 12 Steps to a Real Life and a Pretty Good Time, cooked for an artist’s colony, was a country music disc jockey and a psychiatric occupational therapy aide, taught preschool, published a bunch of essays, was a morning drive-time personality on a tiny AM radio station, ran a college bookstore coffee shop, directed a college’s co-curricular programming, and failed to sell cars.

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2 thoughts on “Life in the Big Woods by Martha Woodroof”

  1. Dear Martha!
    Surely I should not have read this just before heading off to bed! I’ll dream about snakes, I fear. Just the thought of you standing on that shovel in flip flops gives me the shivers!

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