“The first year I lived here, we cleared land and cut our firewood with hand saws. It was hard work and it took a lot of time, but we had that time and the work felt good. As winter approached, though, we realized that we had in no way cut enough wood to last us very long, and we panicked. We asked a friend who had a chainsaw to come over and cut up some of the big logs that we had lying around. These would have taken hours to saw through with the hand saw.
He came with his monster machine which fascinated and terrified us all. Our country peace was broken. The noise was deafening and overpowering. I was eating an orange and couldn’t taste it; the chainsaw demanded all my consciousness. The animals fled. We stood at a distance, fingers in ears, and watched the chainsaw rip through the wood in no time at all, leaving us a three-month supply of warmth and comfort and hot meals."
-- Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer
Last year, our routine of gathering firewood was simple, relaxing. In the crisp mountain air of early autumn, we’d load up the truck with dogs, chainsaw, and a few gallons of gatorade. Winding dirt roads lead us through the National Forest to the permit firewood cutting area, where for as little as $15, you could haul away dead softwoods to feed your family’s woodstove. So passed nearly every Saturday afternoon until the snows came, ambling along with the windows down, selecting only the most enticing downed logs to cut into fifteen-inch sections, and returning home with a modest stack of semi-dried wood to be split by hand in the evenings. In particular, T took pride in telling people he had to go straight home from work to split wood for the night’s fire, and meant it – our stash of stove-ready chunks rarely split more than two or three days ahead of the need.
The swing of a splitting maul sings an easy rhythm. Each time two quarters fall equally away from the head, I feel like I’ve come one swing closer to mastering an essential skill of our ancestors. The work is physical, but not difficult, and an hour or less a day isn’t enough to make the shoulders especially sore. We split on a section of stump next to the driveway, and set the pieces on the porch where the eaves shelter them from snow and water. We have two splitting stumps, actually – one for T, and one about six inches shorter for me. The half-foot difference in our height equates to almost exactly the same difference in our respective maul-swinging positions. I catch a glimpse of the cheap, lightweight axe our landlord left to us, and imagine her in her business suit, attempting to split the tiny pile of kindling she left for us when we moved in.
We were on our way into the Forest again last weekend when serendipity came calling. The fire radio crackled to life just as we pulled out onto the paved road – traffic accident on the highway. Like much of Colorado, our small town’s fire department is entirely volunteer – not even the chief is paid – and so whatever help comes or doesn’t come to the folks entrapped in their vehicles following an accident is dependent entirely on the generosity of working people who can take time out of their day to render aid. Leaving the pups waiting anxiously in the cab of the truck, we rolled out to the scene with two of our neighbors. The accident turned out to be relatively minor, and we spent much of the call directing traffic around the tow truck and chatting about good places to find firewood. It just so happened that one of our neighbors and fellow volunteer firefighters knew of someone who was trying to get rid of a large pile of wood. A land development company clearing the way for new home sites had dumped a stack of softwood logs at the edge of their property, undecided about how to dispose of them and hoping they would eventually disappear. A tall pile of unclaimed logs, just waiting to be cut up and hauled away? We were happy to help them out. In exchange for a dozen of our home-grown brown eggs, this same neighbor loaned us the use of his hydraulic log splitter.
In one afternoon, we were able to cut, split, and haul away three or four pick-up loads of split wood. We now have already stacked – on the porch, on a firewood rack, on pallets beside the house – as much wood as we put up all season last fall. It’s heartening to feel so rich in renewable heat source. But at the same time, we unintentionally robbed ourselves of one of our favorite early evening activities. In the end, we decided to come back and fill up a few more truckloads without the benefit of the splitter. That way, we managed to get ahead on the work, but also left round pieces in a pile that could still serve as source of daily meditation. Lift, swing, split. Repeat.