We’ve had an unseasonably warm November. Which figures, since we just put a woodstove in the basement under our kitchen. No matter though, this is Upstate NY. It will get cold and will make up for the late start on the other end of the season. I’m looking forward to the additional heat and glorious smell of burning wood in the house.
To prepare, I’ve started cutting and splitting fuel for the stove. A few weekends now spent with my dad’s old 16″ STIHL chainsaw and several twisted piles of years-old trees out at my in-law’s house, truck backed down the lane waiting by the hedgerow for the load. The saw’s orange case, red gas can and dirty-white bar-oil jug on the tailgate like a blue-collar still-life. Three muffled coughs from the saw before it finally pulls to life and belts out its two-stroke song. Saw dust covering my jeans and boots as 18″ lengths fall away into the brush. The smell and sound laying-hold of long-neglected memories.
I grew up gathering wood every late-summer/early-fall with my dad. It was the rite of the season. The annual acknowledgment that while we had some time to prepare, we’d never really have as much time as we’d like and we’d better get busy. Our house would be good and damn warm when the snow decided to fly.
We’d spend weekend afternoons cutting up blow-downs on various friends’ property. I remember standing by while dad dispatched the deadfall, watching the saw’s exhaust and dust from fresh cut wood swirling in bright shafts of sun overhead. Once home, we’d split the lengths and stack them along the side of the garage. Until I was 11 or 12 my job was carrying and stacking, while dad wielded the saw and the splitting maul. When I got strong enough to do more than simply beat dents into the lengths of wood, dad gladly let me have the splitting duty. The saw however, was always his.
About the time I was in high school, the blow-downs and gift wood thinned and we turned to having a truckload of split lengths dumped in the driveway each year. A couple full cords of the stuff that I got to hump to the side of the garage. In spite of the sheer size of the wood mountain that took up 2/3 of the driveway behind the house, I enjoyed the work. Unlike school. The goal was simple and I saw my progress each time I returned to the pile. I found my own rhythm and flow and pace. I felt strong. Alive in the fresh air. Hands gathering callouses and splinters, swollen with hard work. To this day I won’t wear gloves, I want to feel what I’m working with. It’s been well over two decades since I stacked my last pile of wood.
This past weekend I spent Saturday afternoon swinging my maul, working off the modest pile of wood I trucked back from my in-laws. Placing each piece on the big splitting round, turning each just-so to give me a clear shot at popping the tight-twisted grain, I separated outside sections from the seasoned, but still stubborn heartwood.
A familiar rhythm returned with each swing. A familiar sound and smell and feeling of being alive. I raised angry blisters on my hands, which have quickly turned callous. My back and forearms and shoulders are good and sore. But the wood is now stacked and waiting for more to join it. And the forecast is calling for cold.