Close to the Source

by Ana Maria Spagna on October 18, 2011

Fall is for firewood. I know we should start earlier, and usually we do, but inevitably the task slops over into these weeks when the sky turns a rich deep blue and salmon spackle the green river red. We fell snags in the yard, or buck blowdowns, or if all else fails, buy a permit and head for the local log yard, buggy and too public, where last year I smashed the hell out of my index finger. I took this as an omen: better to work at home.

So I do. This afternoon I’ll finish. I’ll split the last of the bigger rounds with the hydraulic splitter we borrowed from a neighbor, then collect the heavy bark and pitchy no-good slabs into a pile for another neighbor, a more regularly social neighbor, to use for campfire wood. I’ll split another tree’s worth of rounds in halves by hand so they’re easier to rick up for next year. Or the year after. There’s an art to it, I suppose. There’s also room for mishaps.

Once, a long time ago, I was fined for cutting firewood illegally. That didn’t happen again. Once, also a long time ago, I had to ask for help with a chainsaw, a shameless girlie request. That didn’t happen again either. I bloodied my fingers learning to break the compression, but learn I did. A few years later, in Flagstaff, I watched a writer neighbor split wood Hollywood-style, lifting the log on the axe and banging it back down, over and over, and I presumed since he was inept at firewood splitting, he’d never make it as a writer. Boy, was I wrong.

In Flagstaff, we burned juniper and aspen, and sometimes pine, even though we were told not to since it left creosote in the pipe. Now we burn Doug fir, mostly, though one year, because we lived in a tiny shack that could heat over-warm in seconds, we burned cottonwood. The shack never got too hot, but the ash pan filled as fast as we could empty it. We dumped the ashes on the snow, and come spring, the cat rolled in the pile every chance she got, unless she could find a used tobacco plug. That cat loved soot.

Once we had a tarp. Two winters of that was more than plenty. We hung the tarp from a rope between two trees and talked ourselves into believing the snow would slide, but it rarely did. We poked at the saggy weight from underneath with a pole or climbed up gingerly and shovel-scooted it down. The tarp was a good one, a gift from my uncle in St. Louis who has never needed a woodshed in his life but owns a fabric company and understands tarps, god bless him. That tarp never tore.

We start burning in October and go right on through April. The fire goes out at night, and in the morning we start it anew, barefoot on the floor, while coffee water boils. Eventually, by mid-morning, the cabin is eighty degrees upstairs — heat rises — and sixty downstairs. Perfect for Laurie and me. She puts on shorts to visit me upstairs at my desk. I wear a sweatshirt for lunch downstairs.

The truth is I like heat. I crave it. I have socks with holes from when I risk setting them too close to the source. That’s how desperate I am. When I’m at a house with central heat, I lose my center; I don’t know where to go to get warm, so I bundle up and turn surly. When the heat is turned up, I open windows because it feels stuffy. I don’t know how to behave — like driving too slow in traffic, like speaking too slowly on the phone. Out of step.

So I don’t mind getting wood, even in the fall, especially in the fall. There’s an old saying about how firewood gets you get warm twice: cutting the wood, then burning it; actually it’s more like four times, bucking, splitting, stacking, then burning. There’s anticipation to it, hope even. Squirrels are pelting scraps of metal roofing the yard with cones, bears are scrounging for the last shriveled berries and the first shriveled fish. Life is about to slow down, move inside, and we’d better be prepared.

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Wet Wool: When I was a kid, my favorite play-pretend game was Lost on a Desert Island, and my adult home is not so different from my childhood fantasy. Except that it’s decidedly not a desert, tucked into the famously wet Cascades: mosses and lichens, conifers and hardwoods, salmon and eagles. Not the stuff of Robinson Crusoe, this. You’d freeze in Tarzan garb. It’s not really an island either, just a small valley separated from the outside world by steep jagged mountains, a whole lot of them, and long skinny lake, deep and cold and treacherously windy.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her books include Potluck, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus and Now Go Home.

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