Gradually the day temperatures are cooling, green leaves on deciduous trees are showing tinges of yellow, and each summer day falls to darkness at an earlier time. The acorns are tumbling from red oaks making loud thuds as they fall from great heights off of leaved branches that harvest energy from the sun. These acorns are being quickly scarfed up by squirrels and chipmunks who store them away for winter forage. Black bears are busy gorging on blackberries and white tailed deer forage hardy on nut crops and other food that will enhance their fat content in anticipation of the cold months ahead that will test their reserves. Even I am gathering wood for our winter heat supply, my own version of winter readiness that will keep my wife and I warm throughout the cold winter ahead.
Occasionally we still have a hot day, not uncommon in this area as the autumn approaches. It is difficult to imagine frigid temperatures as I sweat while cutting wood on in 87 degree temperatures, but instinct drives me to continue knowing that there is only a small amount of time left before we start consuming the wood pile in earnest.
I don’t like to think about winter quite yet. I love winter, in fact I love each season, but I still want to enjoy the last few warm days before things begin to change. These days I have a greater appreciation for the changing seasons. I see some sort of parallel with my life as I gain years over which I have no control. These days I like to enjoy each day that I have a spring in my step and a bright view in front of me. I love to soak up the ambience of youth like the last warm day of the summer. I anticipate there being a spring to my step on many days for some time into the future. I even have plans to keep it there by getting regular exercise, eating healthfully, and thinking positive thoughts.
Part of reveling in the waning days of summer is the anticipation of autumn. I picture bright blue skies, brilliant foliage, and crisp, cool temperatures. This is perhaps my favorite season and the one that seems to be the shortest. I will be joyous to see it arrive! This year I have promised myself to appreciate each and every day of the fall in hopes that the “be here now” attitude will make each day precious, marvelous, and without regret. I’m hopeful that each day will provide with me with another opportunity to be in the outdoors and commune with the natural world. I’m hopeful that most other people will get a chance to do the same.
There is already evidence that this autumn will provide a bumper forage crop of both red acorns and beech nuts in the forest. On recent wanderings I have witnessed multitudes of large, fat acorns and spiked beech nuts laying about the forest floor. In good years there are too many for the squirrels, deer, chipmunks, bears, wild turkeys and other wild foragers to utilize. This allows some of these tree seeds to germinate and produce new seedlings, many of which will someday mature and produce their own acorns and nuts. The bumper crop of mast will assure more than adequate survival of many of our forest friends. Even in a harsh winter adequate food supplies will enable not only survival, but healthy circumstances for breeding and birthing that will help to ensure a healthy ecosystem for the next year.
On this day I am methodically cutting dead hardwood that was fallen during the great ice storm of 1998. There still remain thousands of cords of maple, ash, birch, cherry, and oak lying on our land, most of which will never be used for heating our home but will be even more valuable as it decomposes and returns carbon, calcium and other nutrients to the forest floor. These nutrients will feed our fabulous forest for years to come. After each pass of the chainsaw blade through a hardwood log I stop and wipe my brow after raising the meshed face mask on my logging helmet. It’s too bad I can’t preserve some of this body warmth for winter. If I could I would need to cut less wood for those cold days ahead. After I cut the wood I have to load it into my truck, haul it back to our house where I will split it before stacking it and covering it for winter use. The truth is I am working on the wood supply for the winter of 2011 and 2012. This winter I will be burning wood cut last summer. I like to stay a year ahead. That way if I am injured or if something unexpected occurs that would prevent me from getting our wood in we are covered. Given I am cutting wood that has been drying for a year and a half seasoning the wood is not an issue. All of the wood that is being cut is ready to burn in our woodstove right now. We cut, haul, and stack about six cords each year. In a very cold year we might use all of it, but generally five to five and a half cords will do it. There is something to be said for the processing of cord wood. Even on a warm day like today it is tremendously satisfying to see the wood accumulated at the end a work session. A tightly stacked cord of wood is a work of art to those who participate in this endeavor.
I must admit that I spread my wood cutting out over a longer period of time these days. I no longer feel comfortable cutting, splitting, and stacking a couple of cords in a day. These days I process wood for no longer than four hours at a time. This puts less wear and tear on my aging body, but still allows for significant progress in this nearly endless pursuit. Certainly one of the benefits of gathering your own cord wood is fitness. Cutting wood involves a lot of muscle work, especially in the upper body. It is a valuable exercise as long as you don’t over do it. On the days that I do get a little too frisky with the wood pile there is always a nice tub of hot water and Epsom salts to restore at least part of my vitality.
Heating with wood is a fact of life for my wife Maureen and me and something we really enjoy. Wood is our sole source of heat and without it we would be in pretty rough shape. It is a hard concept to explain to the masses that walk over to a wall and turn up the thermometer on a cold winter’s night. But let me put it this way. Each time we add a log to the fire in the woodstove we are reminded of a day spent in the woods and a rewarding day’s work that ends with a smile. And each time we stand in front of the wood stove after a cold adventure outdoors we absorb sunlight turned to carbon and it warms our soul.
So on this warm day I look at the fruits of my effort; a pile of cut wood that still needs to be hauled, split, and stacked. I look to the sky and see that the sun is getting low and the day is nearly finished. And I can’t help but wonder what will be in store for me with each passing day as the sun sets earlier and earlier on the western horizon.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in August of 2010.