As the two-wheeled cart rumbled behind them, Bonnie and Olivia trotted down Hogback Mountain Road in Montville, their long ears twitching.
“You can tell what my mules are thinking by their ears. They know my voice. They’re in a good mood,” said Glenn Whitfield Martin II, known to family and friends as “G.W.”
A woodcutter by trade, Martin uses his mules to “twitch” wood, native jargon for pulling firewood or saw logs out of the woods. He may be the only woodcutter in the state who works with mules.
“There’s lots of folks who use animal power for logging and farming. But I haven’t met anybody in Maine yet that, right now, is twitching wood with mules for a business,” he said.
Martin got his mules about two years ago. He jury-rigged the cart from scrap iron, old car tires and a long, wooden shaft hewn of tough, native hornbeam.
“It’s not specifically designed to be a logging cart, but it works. It’s fairly narrow and it’s got skinny tires. I welded this metal grate here, for the floor, so it doesn’t build up snow,” he said.
He uses the cart for logging, transportation, training and to haul a work trailer and implements.
“It’s all-purpose. And, it’s got a beer holder welded to the railing,” he said.
Perched on the seat of his “Amish tractor,” as he called it, Martin commanded a view of his working mules’ rumps and of the road ahead.
“C’mon. Get up there, Olivia!” he shouted, as he slapped the reins over the broad back of the red-brown mule hitched on the right.
“She’s bigger, but she likes to lag behind and let Bonnie do the work,” he said, of the mule’s black teammate. “But Bonnie is the boss. She’s got a lot of heart. She likes to pull.”
Like all mules, Bonnie and Olivia are the hybrid offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. Both male and female mules are sterile. (Hinnies are just the opposite — a cross between a male horse and female donkey.)
Bonnie, age 7½, stands about 15½ hands tall; Olivia, age 5½, is about 16 hands. A “hand” is a 4-inch unit of length used to describe the size of horses and other equines.
“They’re young,” Martin said.
It was a sunny March day in mud season, and the dirt road was like chocolate pudding. As the mules stomped through puddles and ruts, a small drift of pink pigs rooting by the roadside eyed the passing team warily. The pigs had broken out of their pen at the Martin homestead and looked as happy as kids playing hooky.
Eager and energetic, the mules turned down Route 220, and broke into a good clip, at times nearly galloping. Martin steered them down Center Road, toward Center Montville. Several neighbors and passing motorists waved to him and his sturdy team.
“People like to see us,” he said.
His woods philosophy
For him, doing work in the woods with mules is not a romantic, 19th-century notion. A number of years ago, he made a conscious choice to live a self-sustaining, subsistence lifestyle at the family homestead. Mules — hardy and efficient — fit in with that choice.
“It’s regular that you’ll see mules at age 35 to 40 still working. This is a long-term investment. I started with mules, because I was told they are easier keepers than horses. When my mules are hot and overheated, they won’t overdrink water. Also, I noticed my mules will leave the grain bucket to go to the hay. They won’t over-eat,” he said.
Also, twitching logs with draft animals fits his woods philosophy, he said. Horses and mules leave a smaller footprint than heavy machinery. Their hoofs do little to disturb the forest floor. And the lightweight cart is less likely to break lower branches or scar trunks of standing trees.
“I’m a landowner’s woodcutter because of my ability to be low-impact with the animals. You are constantly trying to find the way that takes the least amount of mule power. With a machine, you’re trying to max out your power,” he said.
Martin, 31, calls his kind of work, “the new wave of woodcutting. … The old school of woodcutting is based on production — how much can I get out of the woods? What’s sad is that people only see the worth of woods in terms of money. Their only model is a production model. That ain’t what I’m doing.”
Besides cutting firewood, he also clears trees for fence lines or to create a field and clean up wood lots. Most of his work is done within a 10-mile radius of his home.
“I work by the hour. Twenty dollars per man, $10 per mule. On average, there’s four man-hours for every one mule-hour.”
By setting an hourly wage for himself and the mules, on average, it costs landowners $180 per cord of firewood, from stump to woodshed, he said.
“I do a lot of two- to 10-acre lots for landowner’s firewood. I have way more work than I can do,” he said.
Mule power also brings a human-size pace to his work in the woods. A master Maine guide, he enjoys observing wildlife in the area he is cutting.
“I can have a close relationship with the land,” he said.
On that day in March, the weather was so mild, you could almost hear the sap rising in the sugar maples that thrive in the heavily wooded Hogback region. This year, he and his partner, Bridget McKeen, have set 100 taps on maple trees growing on his family’s land.
“We’re hoping for 25 gallons of syrup. The family uses maple syrup for cooking and baking,” he said.
Resourcefulness is at the heart of his subsistence lifestyle.
“We just got set up with a new, 50-gallon sap pan, made from a cover of a stainless milk tank. We converted a 275-gallon oil drum into a wood stove, to heat up the syrup,” he said.
His roots run deep in Montville’s ledgy soil.
Martin’s parents, Glenn and Susan Martin, own 500 acres on Hogback, a Waldo County mountain that climbs to 1,073 feet above sea level. He is the oldest of the Martin children, who include his three sisters, Casey, Sarah and Jodie.
His dad is a woodcutter and carpenter; his mother a daycare worker and home gardener. He and McKeen have an 11-month-old daughter, Ora Lena Martin. McKeen sews and does odd jobs such as house-painting and baby-sitting.
A 1996 graduate from Mount View Regional High School in Thorndike, he served for one year in AmeriCorps College Conservation Corp. He spent part of that program attending Unity College in Unity.
“I chose not to go on with college. The pace was not right for me. I wanted to do more than spend time sitting in a classroom. I’m the kid who could never sit still in class and never did his homework. Now, I’m driving a team of mules,” he said.
He lives what some people would call a bare-bones existence.
“I grew up in a trailer — all of us four kids and a wood stove. I have always been poor. And I enjoy it,” he said.
Bartering and trading is a way of life.
“I keep dollars out of my life as much as possible. I don’t have a brand-new snowmobile. I’m not making payments on a brand-new truck. I grow my own food, build my own equipment. I’m always scraping by, but I’m well-fed. I never miss a meal.”
He has learned a lot from his mules, he added.
“Mules are bred to be servants — to work. They’re cautious — not stubborn, like people say. They want to know why they’re doing something. It takes you five times longer to teach a mule than a horse. They’ve taught me patience,” he said.
Lynn Ascrizzi is a freelance writer and lives in Freedom.
‘THE SAP PAIL’
Besides doing woodcutting work with mules, G.W. Martin of Montville is well-known in Waldo County as the editor and publisher of a homespun publication called “The Sap Pail.”
Full of locally written, folksy how-to information about gardening and small farming, local opinions and humor, the free bimonthly publication celebrated its fifth anniversary in March.
“It focuses on information, not news. Some of the ads, I barter for. They get the ad; I get the service. We don’t accept ads from banks, realtors, new car dealerships, big-box stores. Those companies fail. They’re a failing system,” Martin said.
Instead, he runs spot ads for locally owned businesses, “like the computer repair guy to the organic farmer, to the auto mechanic. There is a hand to shake behind those businesses. This is true security,” he said.
He produces the newsprint publication on a laptop computer installed in a wood-heated shack near his mule shed. Its newly released issue features articles such as: “Zinko, the Indoor Chicken,” “Bunny Hunting,” “Apple Press Design” and “Eagles in Freedom.”
“I’ve made zero income on it. Sometimes I put a little woodcutting money into it. It’s part of my lifestyle. I’m getting better at reading, better at writing. … I use ‘The Sap Pail’ as a doorway — an excuse to get into something and learn what I want to,” he said.
“The Sap Pail” can be found at small business locations in every town in Waldo County. Subscriptions cost $15 per year. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org; 342-2034.