Dignified Death be Damned!
I spent much of Saturday in the woods, felling, skidding, and processing a white ash. It was a beautiful tree, extending into serpentine curves along each of its three fat boles, containing maybe a cord of firewood in total. The curves began about two thirds of the way up the stem of each bole, and I was reminded again of outreached fingers, but this time not the gnarled, arthritic appendages of the apple trees. A pianist, maybe. Or a maker of fine instruments, one who wields his tools with micrometer precision. And though it was one of the tallest trees within sight, there was nothing magisterial in its bearing; it was too graceful for that.
But it had been wounded during the last softwood harvest on this land ten years ago or more, most likely by the outermost log in a hitch of logs, scraping off a swath of protective bark as the skidder passed. The tree might have healed – many do – but this one did not, and at least half the upper branches bore no leaves, and while there would have been nothing wrong with letting it proceed along its slow path toward dignified death, the fire that heats this home is like a newborn baby, wanting only to be lovingly tended and fed no matter what the costs might be and who might bear them. Dignified death be damned.
It rained as I worked – suddenly, it’s always raining – and I remembered how much I like working in the rain in the forest, how the moisture releases colors and smells, the yeasty sweetness of the soil and the fresh cut stumps, the acridness of the saw exhaust, and even the occasional whiff of myself when I reach to raise the visor of my helmet to rub-scratch a cheek itch with the back of hand, the skin there salted by sweat, smudged with woods detritus from wriggling my arm under the log to affix the choker, a little high-test gasoline on my fingers from when I’d overfilled the saw and wetted the cap. And then I remembered something I hadn’t thought of in years – decades, really – about the time Trevor and I ran out of gas along a back road at something like two in the morning, and how we snuck into a barn and found a can and emptied it into his Volkswagen, and then days later felt so wracked by guilt that we snuck back, took the empty can, refilled it, and returned it under the cover of night. Crikes. It would’ve been easier to just walk home. And then I thought about how many times I’ve smelled gas in the intervening years – hundreds, at least – and wondered why I remembered this now. For that, I have no answer.
Ash is generally considered premium firewood – it burns pretty hot and long enough, dries quick, and splits like it’s been waiting to fall apart since the day it came together – but I just don’t find it that engaging, I guess because it’s a little too easy. I can swing a splitting axe into ash all day and not even be sore the next morning, and what fun is that? I guess I like to feel the work I’ve done. I guess it’s proof of something.
Me, I’m a beech man. I love the way it holds a fire, and it’s just hard enough to split that it feels like I’ve earned it. But there’s not much beech on this land. Not much ash, either, come to think of it, so mostly I’ve been working my way through the stands of sugar maple, culling the dead and dying, burning them down to near nothing, then spreading their ashes on the pasture without even a hint of ceremony. Sugar maple’s real good firewood, too, though sometimes it feels like maybe I have to work a little too hard for it. Jeez. See how fickle I am?
I think I’ve lived without wood heat for maybe two winters of my life, both rentals in my early 20’s. I was born into a house with wood heat, raised in houses with wood heat, and have now built and lived in two houses with wood heat. The older I get, the better I am learning to avoid beginning sentences with the phrase “I would never,” so I won’t say that I’d never live without wood heat, only that I cannot imagine living without wood heat. This is in part because I like the vagaries of the heat itself – the inconsistency of it, the engagement with it, the knowing and patience it demands, even the functional beauty of a good stove – but also because I like working in the woods. A lot. It contains, for me, the perfect ratio of risk to reward, of strength and finesse, of skill and a certain brute persistence. It keeps you on your toes, forces your attention to the matter at hand. There are many tools that can be used in a half-minded way, but a chainsaw is not one of them.
It was nearly 9:00 by the time I walked down from where I’d been splitting that ash, on a little mossed knoll above the barn. I was shocked to find it so late (I don’t wear a watch, or carry a device that tells time); my eyes had adjusted with the waning light, and I would’ve sworn it was 8:00 or even earlier. It was cool, too, the way it’s been for the last week or so, cool enough that though I’d been splitting for nearly two hours straight, I was uncomfortable in my tee shirt, which was damp from the showers and the earlier sweat.
So what I did was go inside and start a fire.