“My dad liked to be warm when he ate,” said Ray. “He used to pull the kitchen table over so he could sit with his back up close to the cookstove.”
“Our stove was about two feet out from the wall. On some winter mornings there was a coating of frost on that wall an inch thick that you could scrape off with your hand. Our jobs in the morning were to build the fire, heat the water for washing, go out and feed the pigs, water and harness the team, and then, when the kitchen was warm, crack open the door to my folk’s room and get ready for school.
“I’d take my gun to school and shot quite a few rabbits on the way there and back. The teacher never seemed to mind as long as I made sure it was unloaded when I brought it in. She knew those rabbits made the difference in our family between hungry and full and she let me lean my gun against the back wall by my coat.
“In the winter we’d take the team and sleigh a mile or so into the bush to cut wood. One time in the swamp, with the sleigh full of logs, the team broke through the ice. I was the youngest, about ten, and I was chest deep in freezing water. I had to go in front of the horses and grab their bridles to try to calm them down because they were lunging and fighting to get out of the water and they might cut themselves on the ice. I was hanging on to them and they bobbed me in and out of the water like you’d dip a candle. Bize, I thought I’d perish right there. I’ve never been so cold. But we built a fire, dried out our clothes and kept on working.
“Another time, I got just my pants wet and they froze right quick. It worked out, though. If I kept moving, I didn’t get cold because that coating of ice acted like a windbreak on the outside.
“We’d haul the logs out first, all the time loading any brush bigger than a broom handle on the second sleigh for the next load. We used that for the cookstove. And it went on like that past dark, first logs, then brush. And you had to get all the brush and pack it down good to make sure it was a full load or you got the boots put to you.
“My dad would work all day out there without gloves and he never got cold. He used to chew on a chunk of pork fat he kept in his pocket, thick as a piece of pie. While the rest of us were freezing, he would be driving the team bare-handed, holding those icy reins. That’s for true.”
Our woodcutting is not quite that dramatic. No horses, no ice. We like to cut in October and November – the days are cool and the bugs are gone.
We have lots of trees on our farm. Ash, elm, birch, maple, some ironwood that always seems to be bound up with thick vines. Every time we find an ironwood, we have to spend the first few minutes cutting away those vines.
When I was in college, I worked on a survey crew in the summers in the Manistee river flats. We would go in by boat, then brush lines for miles and survey the sections. It’s a wonder no one was killed with inexperienced kids running saws and dropping trees no one could even get their arms around. Sawchains flying off the bars, trees splitting and falling the wrong way. Quite a time. Once I was walking down the line and the next thing I knew I was on the ground looking up at the sky. Someone felled a little four-inch tree but it was big enough to bonk me right on the head and knock me out for a bit. That was one of the first times I wore a hardhat and I had one on my head every day after that.
Our farm crew is a little more sedate. We are gradually cutting roads through the woods, so Conor and I pick the trees that are in the roadway. I notch and fell them with Conor sometimes giving them a little push to fall on the stretch of road we’d already opened up. I buzz them up into eight-foot logs or so, while Charlotte and Susan trim off the branches with big loppers and cut kindling. We all carry the logs by hand over to the truck or trailer and we cut them up into stove-sized chunks there. Some goes right into the truck for the woodpile and some gets dumped aside to split with the neighbor’s hydraulic log splitter.
It’s noisy, dirty work but when the saw’s off the air is clean and it’s nice being out in the woods. The best part, though is the satisfaction of working together as a family. Next best are the snacks and hot drinks Susan brings along. A few weekends and we’re done for another year.
We have two woodpiles, this year’s and last year’s, so we can burn year-old wood. It seems everyone has a different measurement for firewood, but a face cord is usually a pile of cut and stacked firewood 16 inches deep by 4 feet high and 8 feet long; one-third of a standard 128 cubic foot bush cord.
We burn a pile that’s about 5 feet high and 20 feet long containing two rows each 14 inches deep, so I guess that’s about one and three-quarters bush cords. At over $200 a bush cord on the market, it’s worth it plus we get the exercise. They say wood warms you twice; when it’s cut and when it’s burned. Ours goes even further because every piece is handled seven times. Logs hauled, logs cut and stacked outside on the woodpile, thrown in the truck to bring inside, off the truck and wheel-barrowed inside, stacked inside, brought upstairs, put in the stove.
I know how Ray’s dad felt. There’s nothing like wood heat. It’s nice to have a spot to warm your hands after coming inside from the chores. It’s just not the same bending over and putting your hands in front of a forced-air grate. Plus, it’s reassuring to sit in the kitchen with the woodstove murmuring. It feels like your link has been added to a chain that stretches back for generations.
When half my crew leaves for college, Susan and I might have to stop going to the woods. That will be one more reason to regret how fast the kids are growing up and how quickly the time goes before they’re gone.