Friday, January 23, 2015

My Firewood Compulsion -- part one

I derive a certain pleasure from awareness of our gift of wood.  Besides giving me its chemical and utilitarian benefits, like the fireplace that warms the soul as well as the body,” the tree and its wood are a most necessary part of my life’s esthetic enjoyment.    -- Eric Sloan: Reverence for Wood

     I was moping around the house the other day, grousing about weather too cold for boating and too warm for skiing.  The frost was on the ground but no snow to go with it and just enough moisture around to make roads and trails treacherous.  Madelyn looked up and said, “Don’t you have a tree to cut down somewhere?”  
     “Yup, I was thinking about that.”
     “Well, go ahead, you know you’ll feel better.”   
     In ten minutes, I had the trailer hooked to the four wheeler with the chainsaw, the ax, and ear muffs in the wooden tool tray on the front. Waiting down the trail along the lake was a standing dead spruce with a heavy lean that I had been meaning to cut for some time. It stands closely nestled to another tree, so it had gone unnoticed by other firewood hunters.  As I sighted up the bark of that trunk to measure the lean and then around it to track the projected fall line, I felt the focus of that work push all my tension out of the way, and I was immersed in the wood.  
     The tree leaned to the northwest nearly touching its neighbor, but it was bowed to the north as well.  Any hope of dropping it cleanly across the trail was gone.  I would have to use wedges and careful notch the tree to the north and hope the weight of it would push it through the branches of its neighbor, but it would most likely slide off to the east where it could hang on other trees.  If a falling tree doesn’t get enough momentum, even frail branches of a small tree can catch it and hold hostage a future pile of firewood.  The cut tree will lean precariously overhead taunting the woodcutter.  I can horse a small tree around be hand and convince
it to fall safely to earth, and sometimes, I run a rope out from a four-wheeler, truck or snow-machine to drag the butt off the stump and away to bring the leaner to earth.  But usually, I face one of these widow makers alone in the forest with a only chainsaw, ax, and ingenuity for allies, and then I must choose between a dangerous challenge or a prudent walk-off, hoping the next windstorm will put things right.  
     Madelyn says that my quest for fuel, for bucking up a log and bringing it home to burn is a salve for my soul, that firewood is my yoga.  When I am out of sorts and grim-facing or just fretting, she tries to send me off to the woods to get firewood.  She claims it steadies my ship, and I do love to go out with a chainsaw and work a tree down into firewood rounds, bring them home, and stack them until I’m tired and dirty. Then I am at peace with my world, feeling worthy.
     It's not just about satisfaction of getting fuel for the winter, there is a reward in working in this medium, kind of an organic “going to the source” sort of feeling.  And there is beauty in fresh cut rounds of birch neatly stacked with white bark shining. There is aesthetic geometry in ricks of spruce with their wedged ends facing out to us, so uniform yet each unique, each split with an eye to following grain to work around knots.  The aroma of sap released in a spray of fresh chip is a pheromone trigger for me. These are images and smells as old as my memory.    
     My time with firewood started, I guess, back in 1958 when my family homesteaded on the Kenai Peninsula. Most everybody was burning wood because it was cheaper than oil, cheaper because the labor used to gather wood wasn’t worth much, and it required a lot of labor. Local coal was also available on the beach, but this meant hauling and most of the beach was only accessible by four wheel drive, not a common accessory on the vehicles of the fifties.  Even those who did burn coal would use wood to get fires started because the coal was hard to start from scratch. Wood, on the other hand, was plentiful right out the back door for we were all clearing land and our backyards were our woodlots. 
     When we moved in to our new cabin, Dad thought he had plenty of scrap and slab left over from milling and building, but we went through that faster than we did moose meat. Folks like us, in their first year on the land, had to make time for collecting enough fuel in the fall to last until spring or expect to peck away at it all winter.       A cord of wood is one hundred twenty-eight cubic feet or a stack four feet by four feet by eight feet. While I get by with three cord a year, a 1950’s homestead cabin with a good stove might go through twice that.  That’s a cord a month, October through April.  There was plenty of wood right out the backdoor but the real stickler was finding dry wood.  Most firewood is cut from green trees then split and left to cure for a year or more. During the first year in a our new cabin, my Dad didn’t have year’s worth of stored dry wood, so we scrounged what dead trees could be found and then made do with slow burning green wood that would foul the chimney and generally disappoint.  
     Before emigrated to Alaska, the Walkers farmed the Ohio Valley, which is rich in hardwoods, clean burning woods with lots of BTUs and nothing like Alaska’s tree varieties.  An armload of oak or maple will go a lot farther toward keeping a cabin warm than an wheelbarrow full of spruce. I’m sure that it took Dad a while to figure out the ins and outs of the boreal forest woodlot where a there wasn’t a stick of maple, elm, or oak to be found.       
      Here on Bear Lake, we are limited to spruce, hemlock, cottonwood, and some alder gets big enough to bother with.   If I want birch I have to drive for it.  We're are in a rain forest, the northern end of the temperate coastal rainforest.  Less than ten miles to the north one enters the boreal forest, or taiga, where spruce and birch are king.    ---Too be continued

No comments:

Post a Comment