Published in The Keene Sentinel, December 6, 1997
The first snow is like a distant relative you thought wasn’t going to come for her annual visit for a while yet and so you had time to clean the house. Suddenly, in mid-November, there is the guest, waist-deep in your clutter.
Usually, the winter announces herself with a genteel calling card, a graceful dusting of snow. Thoughtfully, graciously, she departs within two days, giving the under-prepared a second chance, a second fall, to get the wood in, repair the roof, till the compost heap into the garden, undercoat the cars, find the mittens and boot liners, the scrapers and shovels, assemble all those things that keep at bay the cold and the dark.
This winter, the snow came early and stuck. But like a relative more understanding than any you actually have, she did your housecleaning for you!
Under a new white quilt of blessed forgetfulness, she came and tucked all your projects into bed. Provided that you have in fact found your mittens and your scrapers, your liners and your shovels, you have a pass to ignore the rest of it until spring. (Where I live, “spring” is actually one or two intermittent days between sugaring in late February and the summer folks in June. The rest is winter.)
It’s as if nature lays down a fresh sheet of watercolor paper on your easel. The tall weeds and stalks of kale that should have been tilled under are now ink drawings, brief brush strokes, haiku. Toys that should have been picked up and brought inside have completely disappeared. The front yard looks vacuumed! The wood that should have been split and piled in the shed is a soft, curvaceous sculpture deep in the woods.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau claimed that heating with wood is the most efficient form of heat because the same stick of wood heats you twice: once when you chop it, and once when you burn it. The same patch of woods has been keeping my family warm for so many generations that we’ve bested Thoreau in the efficiency department by a factor of six. By the time a piece of beech or oak or maple is burning cheerily in our stove, we have broken a sweat over it at least a dozen times. (I’ve always thought that birch is the most efficient wood of all, as it comes already wrapped in newspaper.)
My father measures trees by hugging them: If his fingertips meet it’s just big enough to be sawed into boards. Anything less is going in the stove. Out comes the chainsaw, and an intimate tango begins: shoulder into the tree, cheek against the bark, legs braced behind. The chainsaw blade bites into the tree with the ease of a smile.
Once you’ve felled the tree, topped it, sawed it into lengths, and then into chucks, you’ve been warmed half a dozen times, and you’re still miles from your woodshed. Your next step brings you still further away, to your neighbor’s kitchen as you negotiate over coffee to borrow his hydraulic splitter. (I use an ax, myself. My year-and-a-half-old son plays in the body of the pickup with his Tonka trucks, and yells “pow!” every time his mother clubs a chunk a good one.)
From there, great minds have worked for years, streamlining the process of getting any given piece of firewood to the fire. They have generated schemes that may involve chutes, ladders, conveyor belts, forklifts and/or shrink-wrap, but as far as I know nobody’s figured out how to leave bending over out of it.
Are we warm yet?
Because there are still the ancillary jobs of burning the topped trees as brush, and nursing the delicate health of the fleet of bombardiers, tractors, skidders and scurvy old pickup trucks required to keep the whole system going from winter to winter.
Our scurvy old pickup truck happens to be a Toyota well into the twilight of its teenaged years. It’s on the wrong side of a snow bank, rusting peacefully under the first snow. It looks as if it intends to stay right there until those one or two days between February and June that we call spring.