We have finally reached that point in the heating season when the kettle on the stove will hiss around the clock. The fire from yesterday will live overnight as coals to rekindle today's, adding just a few twigs and a handful of kindling. We are into the winter ritual of the woodstove, and this seems only natural; the first time I heated a house with wood was a half lifetime ago. We've been through a half-dozen wood stoves in four houses in two states since then. Some details are different. But there is enough sameness in woodgathering that one year's experience seems like merely a continuation from the year before. If we're not burning wood, we are gathering it. There is a certain comfort in that sameness, and enough joy in it that it still seems new.
My experience with woodgathering has been overwhelmingly pleasant. The choice of heating our various houses with wood is testimony of my thorough indoctrination into the country way of doing things, the ruralification of a once-citified young man. I feel certain in the cold gray days ahead, I will find ways to heap praise on the comforting fire that cracks and flickers through the glass stove door a few feet from my desk. But what comes to mind just now, as I think back over the various chapters in my history as a wood-gatherer, are the few times when the risks and dangers of the process made me wonder if I couldn't come to love a nice, safe heat pump instead.
Very soon after moving to Virginia in March long ago, we learned that we weren't in Alabama any more, Toto. The little yellow "Easter dress" we brought from 'bama for little Holli that first spring wouldn't be comfortable in Virginia until late June. The old house we bought after arriving here was frigid. I remember many mornings eating our breakfast cereal while sitting on the only warm radiator in the rambling old house. We soon realized that, even at 17 cents a gallon for fuel oil, we would go broke and never be warm without some supplemental heat. And thus out of necessity, our careers as woodgathers had began. For the first year, we cut 'down and dead' wood by permit from the National Forest with an axe and a 48 inch bow saw. Push, pull, chop, tote, split. Talk about wood heating you twice. But that is not the story I have in mind here.
Our country-wise neighbor took pity on us, and I soon learned by his quiet example to use a chain saw. The back yard began to fill with stacks of firewood. Just seeing it in prim ranks behind the house gave me assurance that there would be warm mornings in our next winter in the house, even across the room from the cast-iron bun-warmers. I often cut wood with Euell, our kind but reticent, pipe-smoking neighbor. He contributed his flatbed truck to haul the wood home; the power-take-off from his tractor made short work of sectioning and splitting our bounty. He was literally a life saver for his clueless and cold new neighbors. But there were a couple of times our wood-cutting comraderie ended in disaster.
We were not far from town, on a friend's land that was being subdivided for housing lots. He had marked a number of smaller trees to be cleared, and offered them to me for firewood. This was easy picking, to be sure, but this was wood on the stump, not the deadfall I was used to cutting up on the ground with my saw in the National Forest. Not to worry. Euell was the master at notching and felling. He could drop'em dead on a dime. I was full of urban admiration at his skill and watched closely to learn by osmosis.
There was another couple guys up on this property cutting that morning, away from us, over toward the pasture. Euell and I moved along felling a tree here and there. I watched as he expertly made the notch to drop a tall, thin hickory down between the tops of two larger trees. I stood back as he started the felling cut. Now, theory goes, the tree is weakened on the side of the notch; then as the felling cut penetrates partially through the thickness opposite the notch, the tree will gradually fall in the direction of the notch, landing precisely where you want it. I had seen him do this a hundred times before and was always impressed by the knowledge he possessed in his hands, wisdom wrought from the country life of this unschooled man.
The theory goes one way, but this tree went quite another. As it began to lean in the intended direction, for reasons known only to the sylvan nymphs, the tree began to twist on its base making a little pirouette of 90 degrees. As it fell in seeming slow-motion, there was not a thing we could do to stop it. Looking in the direction of its unpredicted fall, at the last instant before impact we saw the other guy's pickup truck. Now, this truck was more than a mere truck. The owner had custom-made elaborate side panels that built up both sides of the truck. And were not talking rough boards. These were planed hardwood, fully finished, and heavily lacquered . His name and the name of his farm were painstakingly woodburned into the wood. It was these hand-crafted panels that the treetop came down across in a perfect splintering karate chop.
Some distance away, the owner was oblivious to what had just happened. Euell was nonplussed. He took a draw or two off his pipe and didn't say a thing as we stood there surveying the damage. After a spell, he walked over to the guy and stood behind him, waiting for him to finish the cut he was making on a downed maple. He just kept working. Finally, Euell walks up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. The fellow was startled, of course, and he shut off his saw. Euell says quietly and without expression: "I think we kindly busted up your truck".
The guy's expression as he turned to survey a tree laying across his pet truck, was that of Sylvester the Cat, after Tweety had put his tail in light socket. Human eyes are not naturally anywhere near that size, in real life. He was upset, but civil about it. The good news was that, when Euell told the fellow that he could repair it, it was true. He had the wood, the tools and the know-how to make a fair replacement in short order. Which he did. And all lived happily ever after.
But ever since this experience, I have had a respect for the unpredictable nature of nature, realizing that Mr. Murphy's laws are in full effect, even in the woods. When a tree is about to fall, know that if you plan something so well that nothing can go wrong, it probably will.
Didn't know this was going to take so many words in the telling. I will have to come back soon to the two other calamities I had in mind to tell about. I know you can hardly wait! Oh, and apologies to George Pope Morris for any harm I might bring to his wonderful old poem.