I woke this morning well before five to a sore back and a chill that beckoned me from bed to tend to the woodstove. At home in New Jersey I would never wake this early on a Saturday morning. My thermostat-controlled central heating would see to that. With natural gas moving easily through the supply lines it would click on long before I felt any chill and soothe me back to sleep at my first stirrings. The mechanized hum of forced-air heating would muffle any morning sounds fluttering through the tree branches outside my window, hush any howling neighborhood dogs. This morning the chill in the air will only be fixed through my own efforts. This morning the silence is of a different sort, so complete it is almost a noise all its own. I pull at the blankets a few times before giving in with the first hint of a smile on my face. This morning I am waking up in Vermont.
Slowly I slide into my jeans, my lower back and shoulders feeling as tightly bound as the fibers of the wood I was splitting yesterday afternoon. It is some type of birch I think. It was left here by the previous owner, stove-length sections of tree trunk piled between two trees by my front door like a housewarming gift. When I first saw its curling gray bark, sections of which shimmer like polished silver, I wondered what type of tree it had been. I want to know what types of trees are on my property. I thought I would look it up on the internet or ask Siri, but there is no cell service here, no wi-fi either so I dug around a bit to find the old Field Guide to North American Trees I rescued from my basement to bring up here along with copies of all my favorite books.
Yellow birch is my best guess given the “shiny yellowish or silver-gray bark separating into papery curly strips.” I will have to confirm this with a neighbor. It seems like everyone up here knows the answers to questions like those. What type of tree that is, best time to find fiddleheads in the early spring, what kind of animal is calling in the night.
Much of this wood does not drop away in clean logs with each swing of the splitting maul. It splits only by degrees. Each swing offers just a bit more of a crack, a little promise that if you keep working at it you can turn these chunks of tree trunk into usable firewood. But it is a battle. The wood’s refusal to split apart is evident each time the splitting maul drives a bit further into the wood and the wood refuses to let it go. Trying to rock the maul free, I can feel the pressure created by the wood’s tight grasp. Years of coming together that I am trying in an afternoon to take apart.
With my feet getting cold on the bedroom floor, I stand and pull on the same hoodie I wore the previous day. It is the only hoodie I have up here, and the lack of choice is refreshing. Atticus, my large white dog, moves around by my legs looking up with those eyes that sense I might be thinking about a pre-dawn walk. He bats me with his tail as we walk down stairs. He follows me over to the stack of wood to the right of the Jotul woodstove, watches me with his attentive eyes as I turn the handle to open the door, stir up the coals, and pile in as many logs as will fit. The logs are the ones I split the last time I was here, the silver bark curling off like wisps of smoke caught in the light of a sunrise.
The last time I was here I got through a cord or so, splitting it, tossing it down the hill, tossing it again through the cellar doors and then stacking it along the basement walls. This time I am working with a bit more urgency, spurred on by the chill in the afternoon air and the promise of cold days to come. I need to get the wood inside before winter buries it in icy white. Swinging away in the waning afternoon sun I am always grateful for the work. My forty-year-old body feels like it is being rescued, or reclaimed, or repurposed. My soul feels like it is being restored one log at a time.
Once the flames are rising again, I grab the old cast iron pot that sits atop the stove and fill it up. It is empty after the night’s burning and hot now after getting the fire going again. I use the fire gloves left behind by the previous owner to carry it to the kitchen. Steam billows up into my face as soon as the water hits the pot. The smell of iron is strong. The water swirls brown from the rust along the pot’s edges. As I place it back on top of the stove, where it will slowly release moisture into the air as the logs burn I wonder if I have turned the automatic humidifier back on at home now that the cold weather is coming. I make a mental note to visit the green touchscreen thermostat when I get back to New Jersey, make sure I program for the optimal relative humidity.
I turn the damper down and grab my jacket, hat, and headlamp. Then, with Atticus, I head out into the darkness. In the light of my headlamp, the whole world sparkles. Frost blankets brittle stalks of this summer’s flowers, even the shards of the dresser I broke apart for kindling yesterday look beautiful. Crystalline in the cold. My breath swirls up and away from me and mixes with the smoke curling down over the eaves of the house from the chimney. The smell of woodsmoke is thick in the air, and aside from my headlamp the darkness is complete.
We head uphill past the only two houses I will see before heading into the woods. Just as we turn onto the trail the snow flurries begin. Atticus does not bark and stays close to my side, perhaps a bit puzzled by this whole experience. At home we could never go for a walk like this, a walk with the promise of not seeing another human being or an illuminated window. A walk where the single beam of my headlamp is the only thing illuminating the snowflakes as they fall into and quickly out of its light.
After an hour or so, and still well before sunrise, we spot the welcoming glow of the light above my new front door. The smell of smoke promises a cozy spot to stand and warm up while the coffee brews. Atticus gets a long drink of water and then plops down inches away from the orange glow.
After a cup of coffee I head back outside to the waiting sections of yellow birch. I am slow moving at first, still shaking off the tightness of a middle-aged man trying to distance himself a bit from his suburban existence before it is too late. Gradually, swing after swing, things loosen up. My body warms to the task and I take off my hat, then my hoodie, eventually working in a flannel with the sleeves rolled to the elbow.
Inside the stove keeps warming away the morning chill. Outside I do the same.