Sunday, February 23, 2014

On carrying wood


I worried about using too much.

The stack of logs in the woodshed was shrinking, and somebody had chopped and split all those logs and it wasn’t me. I am just a city girl pretending she knows how to live in the woods all by herself with sled dogs in a cabin 25 minutes from the closest filling station along twisty roads rutted with snow, not far from the biggest (and mostly frozen) fresh water lake in the world.

I’ve been experimenting for a while, with living deep in the woods, often alone, and with fire for warmth. I’ve played with different arrangements of newspaper, egg cartons, birch bark, and misshapen stumps of wood to see what lights fastest, burns longest. I never learned such things as a child. I heard about evolution, the earliest molecules of life, and cancer research from my father, and from my mother, all about Egypt and antiques and how to head straight to the back of fancy stores to find the sales racks. But nobody showed me how to make a fire or carry logs or drive on icy roads far away from civilized people. So, I’m teaching myself. At my age, I realize I have to make a few mistakes before I’m “good enough” at anything new. I prefer blundering by myself, laughing and swearing at myself by myself. I guess when you’ve mastered certain life skills after so many years, you’d just as soon your humble efforts to learn new tasks not have any judgmental company other than your own.

So for days, I carried the logs in my arms, their hairy splinters and crumbs of bark clinging to my outside clothes. They filled the crook of my arm and balanced under my chin and I had to walk slowly so as not to trip and fall into the snow drifts or hit my head on ice, which I’ve done before and know too well the consequences. It was important to be mindful, so that I not default on my promise to care for 13 wild puppies, one fading elderdog, 5 adult sled dogs, and one tabby, all of whom belong to mushers who were running a race in Wyoming, nice people who entrusted their homestead to me. I may have dropped a log here or there, but not that often. I got pretty good at carrying wood and keeping my balance. Usually I waited till all the chores were done, till all the dogs were fed, which was around sunset. I had to wear a headlamp to make my way to the woodshed and then back to the dark cabin.

When snow was falling and I looked upwards, my beam spotlighted a thousand or more flakes drifting down like a blur of swans. But on clear nights I found the stars. I don’t understand how these tiny specks of brightness can hold their own against such impenetrable darkness. I loved how, with my neck tilted back, the plume of my headlamp widened and vanished somewhere up there, a reminder of how little we really are. I stood for I don’t know how long, arms full of prickly wood, inhaling the sub-zero air, and gawking at those stars. Sometimes they made me cry. I caught the Big Dipper once showing off, curving itself into the dark bowl, dangling its long handle as if daring treetops to take hold.

And then I’d remember the logs in my arms and the funny sled dog inside who had skin troubles, who scabbed and lost his fur, and how he lived to loll by the wood-burning stove, rolling on his long narrow back, slowly stroking his snout with this paws and bending his pointy ears forward. He often wiggled, feet upwards, closer and closer to the stove till I had to attach a short leash to him to ensure his safety. I knew he was sitting in the cold dark cabin on a big plush easy chair waiting for me, the big dog on two feet with the light on its head, to drop the logs into the canvas holder, kneel, and begin sticking things in the black box till it got nice and hot.

And so I aimed my headlamp at the cabin door and walked up the wooden stairs, careful not to drop the precious load I’d hand-selected for the evening, the different shapes and sizes culled from all parts of the stack to even out the appearance of the dwindling supply.

Choosing logs probably shouldn’t take so long, but the variety fascinated me. So did the sounds the woodpile made. I opted for gnarly pieces that looked like they might burn a while. I chose stumps of birch whose bark was peeling, in hopes they might ignite quickly. I picked short, skinny pieces that could serve as a base upon which to lay bigger, fatter sections of wood. I wondered whether I should set the sharp wedge side of the split logs toward the flame or place them bark-side down. Sometimes when I removed a log, others would roll to fill the emptied space, rumbling as if a marimba player haunted the place Each log I added to my pile had its own voice when it joined the others: clunk, plunk, or rip-scratch when bark caught on bark.

I always had arrangements in mind, ways I would start the fire, cheating with combustible wafers from
the hardware store and inserting wads of newsprint I made from throwaways I picked up when I was in town. The paper roared and blew bursts of warmth, but the real trick was to coax a union of logs and fire that delivered flames and hot coals to keep heat going as long as possible. Such a prize took practice, patience, and an iron poker to move, lift, and settle logs into the perfect perch. I swept out a fair amount of sooty ash in the mornings and thought about how I should use it – but never did.

It was intoxicating to play with fire, and I have a few scorched pinholes in some shirts from tiny meteorites the stove spit out while I absently pondered its flames. I always managed to snuff these sparks fast enough not to set myself ablaze. But those moments reminded me just how tenuous life is deep in the winter in the woods by oneself. So I always kept the matches far away from the wood-burning stove.

Lynx by Nace Hagemann Photography
Eventually, when I got practical, I started using a child’s sled to drag my wood supply to the cabin. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying to pull the loaded-down plastic thing, not like cradling lumps of old trees against your breast. But it was more sensible, and I was able to stack the deck against frozen nights more efficiently this way, which matters when you’re alone in the North Woods, where timber wolves prowl and lynx saunter about in what look like oversized footy PJs, acting for all the world like they own the place, which clearly I did not.


Whenever I made a late-night dash to the outhouse, only a few feet past the woodshed, I could never return without a few logs in my arms. Nor could I resist staring up at the stars or the flakes or sometimes into a firmament of nothingness, inhaling the reassurance of woody smoke if the wind were just so.

Maybe that’s why the woodpile shrank so fast.

Woodpile image by kallinahandandbasket
Night sky image by chasedekker
Wood-burning stove image by jkleeman

3 comments:

Linda said...

Sounds like you had a "ruffing it" wonderful time!

Kathleen said...

Yes indeed, Linda!

Linda said...

Now that winter's over, less wood and more daylight, time for spring adventures! Have a blessed Easter.

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