Bread dough rises on our new woodstove insert

The thermometer this morning humg at a frigid 4 degrees. For the first time this winter, our pond was entirely frozen over but for a Polaroid-sized square of open water beneath the “waterfalls” we crafted last summer out of an old rusted wastebasket, and an older copper coal bucket.

Christmas, the rooster, kept his still-juvenile crows to himself today, maybe to conserve energy. The hens muttered quietly to themselves, careful not to shatter the air with their clucks. On such mornings, I am awed once again by the strength of the animals who can face such cold nights with little more than the feathers and furs on their backs.

Heavily fortified in my fake tropical indoor environment against the cold, I am humbled at just how much energy it takes to keep little old me functioning through the winter months.

The chickens thrive on some scraps, chicken mash, and a bowl of warm water morning and evenings. Amazing. In our older years, Carter and I are trying our modest best to make less of a footprint where we live, and to be a bit more energy and food independent. None of this comes naturally to me, so there are a lot of errors and “ooops” involved in this process.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, we installed a woodstove insert into the gaping, heat-sucking hole that was our fireplace. Living on two acres of woods, we figured that all the downed trees could help us cheaply augment our heat pump, which is pretty worthless when the temps drop below 30 degrees—and they’ve been doing that a lot this winter.

Carter and I talked and talked about the wisdom of investing in the fireplace insert, because—believe me—these things are expensive enough classify as “an investment.” We pondered whether we could take on the daily tasks of heating with wood, and also if we could take on the yearly task of gathering, splitting, and stacking it. I believe, looking back, that we were in another dimension when we finally made the decision to have the stove installed. If you will recall, neither of us could be called hale and hearty by any stretch of the imagination. Also—I forget if I ever mentioned this—I have asthma. And since we did not decide to have the stove contraption installed until late November, gathering firewood was not on our list of “must dos” last summer.

So, as the coldest days of the winter huff and puff down upon us, we find we have managed to use up the entire stash of wood we had casually managed to stack up last spring and summer along the north side of the house. It looked like a big pile to us in late November. Two big piles, in fact, and part of a third.

It took us exactly 31 days to burn it all.

It took us one week to ignite three large, crispy holes into our carpet.

It took me three weeks to get good at cutting kindling.

Carter and I are both old hands at burn management now—carpets and hands.

I’m just now getting the hang of how to split a wood without splitting my foot in half.

Twice this past week—and for many times in the weeks to come, no doubt—Carter and I started out our morning bundled up like down-wrapped salamis, chain saw and wheelbarrow in tow, stalking our property for aged and gatherable wood. Did I mention, ever, that our property sits on the edge of hollow, and that from the house, the only direction you can walk is downhill? Edit that. You cannot walk down hill unless you have four legs. If you have two, you slip, skid, and roll downhill. If it’s just rained, you can achieve 0-to-30 mph in 4 seconds if you throw yourself down the hollow headfirst. I speak from experience.

This morning, spouting billows of frosted breath into the air, I remembered something I forgot about nature and intimacy. Lugging a wheelbarrow of  logs behind me as I crawled like a determined tick up the side of the hollow, I remembered that plain hard labor outside among wood, water, sticks, leaves, and frozen ground has its own sacred sensuousness. It is far different from doing plain, hard labor on an assembly line, or scrubbing bathroom floors. Yes, yes, I know anything can be a meditation, but there is something about the sensory richness in laboring in nature that for me easily trumps scrubbing my linoleum or vacuuming the car.

In just these few excursions outdoors to gather wood, I have come to a fresh understanding of trees. I am learning again how different the personalities of wood can be. Even post-life, the log pieces remain animated in some sense that I can only grasp with my silence and my sweat. This morning, the nameless logs I carried up the hollow past the chicken house and into the yard split like butter, almost with a giggle, I’d swear. Their grain was straight and unknotted, and vanilla-colored. I spoke to them while I chopped them, saying “Oh, thank you!” and “Goody!” and “Yaaaaa!” when they split in an almost dancing fashion.

When I picked up the wood pieces to carry them inside, they were smooth and cool, like snakeskin. Some wood seems as light as feather, while other wood is dense and heavy.

A few days before, I had wrestled with some cedar that seemed to enjoy having her way with me, tangling my ax between knots, bouncing off the chopping block, flying across the yard, and once even smacking Mazel on the head while he chewed a stick on the deck. It was mischievous wood, I tell you, simply mischievous.

And then there is the renewed shock I feel each time I go out to get wood: It is there! This miraculous, beautiful stuff that shades me when it is standing, amazes me when it hits the ground and sculpts itself into works of art, dances with blue and green flames in the stove, and invites me into relationship with it in so many ways and moods is all over my yard, ever fascinating, ever mysterious. How cool is that?

I hope I’ll still be saying this when I am 90, tripping over my walker to get my hands on a piece of firewood, fracturing my hip in the hollow as I fall over and marvel at some long gone, drop-dead gorgeous oak stump of spirals, curls, mosses and ferns. By then, I may have lost a few fingers to the ax, or set the house on fire once or twice with all that tree magic blazing indoors. Hopefully, my oxygen tank will have a chord long enough to reach the woodpile. If not, there’s always the inhaler.

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7 Responses to WOOD, SMOKE, SWEAT

  1. Cindy says:

    Oh, too funny! I took a tumble this last week down a SLIGHT incline in our back yard, I was covered in a snowy, muddy mess. I swore some, got up, and was thankful to come back inside to a warm kitchen, heated by our lovely wood stove. They are a joy! Oh, btw, I’ve never gotten to the point where I could see house work as some kind of Zen thing, I’ve really tried….just can’t. I also prefer outdoor work to scrubbing ANYTHING, even if it means I take a tumble or two out in the cold, snowy acres of my back yard. The cardinals have never laughed at me either….bless their hearts.

  2. Susan, what a lovely piece. Makes me think of the Thoreau quote “Every man looks at his woodpile with a kind of affection.”

    I’m sure he meant women, too!

  3. kathey says:

    OMG and Goddesses, aren’t we all just plain DIFFERENT beings now with so much snow altering our lifestyles and perceptions? Every time I leave my house and venture outdoors I never know what to expect as far as simply walking goes. Sometimes I wonder if I will return safely back to the house. So, thank you, Susan, for your delightful humourous pokings at wintery life as many of us experience challenges of ageing as we try and survive in this frigid coldwave.

  4. Erin says:

    Susan, this article is wonderful. The imagery was a masterpiece of writing skill. I felt like I was right there with you….but glad I wasn’t at that moment…I felt chilled to the bone just reading it. I chuckled all the way to the end.

  5. dave5145 says:

    What an adventure! Let there be warmth! And getting close and personal with the wholesome process of “getting there” is half the fun, incidental pains and aggravations not withstanding! Seemingly endless intricacies involved with tool selection, skill development (and confidence building!), etc.—in fuel selecting, lugging it from there to here, splitting it up, getting it dry enough, burning it efficiently, getting the heat spread around, and dealing with the smoke and ashes that result—what a trip. Could be a full time job! I remember years ago when it was a day-to-day affair. No comforting wood pile out there. Only a one day-ahead’s pile steaming beside the sizzling stove. No chain saw, just crude (but sharp) tools. Thankfully I was much younger then! Getting a year’s supply to season over the summer was the elusive, somewhere-over-the-rainbow dream. It was years before any thing close to that ever happened! But what an “adventure” in the mean time….

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Yes, Dave, that’s us right now—the daily gathering! On really bad days I fear we may be reduced to burning chair legs!

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