Fitting Into Trees

Afternoon walk in Melvin's field
Afternoon walk in Melvin’s field

I was up early, propelled by the feeling that too many days had passed since I’d greeted the rising sun with sweat on my brow, so I coaxed the fires to life, slipped out the door, and stepped into my skis. It was still dark and an even zero degrees, but it’s been the sort of winter that makes a zero degree morning feel like just the way things are, so I wasn’t cold. I glided up past the barn and the still-prone cows, and I fancied myself the image of them turning their shaggy heads toward me in greeting or maybe just curiosity, but the truth is, it was too dark to know if they so much as glanced my way.

Out on Melvin’s field, at the height of the land, I slotted into the packed depression left by the big, lugged tire of his New Holland on his way to gather firewood the afternoon before. The sky was ever so slightly bluing above me, and I skied fast as the cold snow would let me. Over by the old hollow oak I could see down to Melvin’s barn. Light shone through a window. Chore time. It was almost six, so I knew Melvin was probably feeding out at that very moment, and for some reason I remembered Thanksgiving, when we’d all been sitting around our big farmhouse table, shifting ever so slightly in our chairs to relieve the post-meal discomfort of expanded bellies pressing against waistbands. We’d had one serious cold snap already, and I said something like “I hope it’s a good, hard winter.” Melvin didn’t miss a beat: “Spoken like someone who makes his living at a desk,” he said, and he was grinning like he does when he’s heckling me but also knows he’s speaking the truth and furthermore knows that I know he’s speaking the truth. It’s a tidy arrangement, really.

That old oak. The boys used to squeeze themselves into it all the time. They’d spend hours in and around that tree, lost to their imagining. We’d read My Side of the Mountain, and I suppose that had something to do with it, but I bet they would have found that tree no matter what. Just the other day Fin told me they can’t fit into it anymore. Ain’t that the way it goes. I suppose it would’ve made me sort of sad if it didn’t reveal the simple fact that they still wanted to fit into it. That they’d tried. Maybe trying to fit inside a hollow tree is as important as actually fitting into it. I know that tree’s days are numbered. It’s going in Melvin’s furnace, if not this winter, then next. If not next winter, the one after that. That’s ok. My boys don’t fit in there anymore, and a furnace doesn’t run on sentiment.

By the time I returned home, I’d gotten the sweat I’d wanted. I could taste it on my upper lip. I skied past the cows again, and this time, I could see that they did look my way. Wanting hay. Wanting fresh water. I went into the house, changed into my chore boots, and stepped back outside.


Ain’t Failed Me Yet

My view in the morning
My view in the morning
My other view in the morning

This time of year, the first thing I do every morning is start two fires. Unless it’s well below zero, we let both fires go cold every night, mostly because we don’t like sleeping in a warm bedroom, and our bedroom is directly over the bigger of our two wood stoves. And, as you’ve probably heard, heat rises.

First, I start a fire in the cookstove and get my coffee going. Then I bop on over to the living room, tripping over a cat or two on my way, and get the big stove going. I love both of our stoves. The cookstove is a Heartland Sweetheart; I bought it used off a fellow in southern New Hampshire who was entirely skeptical that I was actually going to cook on the thing. “Really?” he kept saying, as we loaded it into the back of our Subaru (no small feat, that). “Really?” I guess the stove had been in the house when he bought it, and he’d never so much as fired it. From the looks of it, neither had the previous owner. Funny aside: I remember how I’d carefully planned the stove pick up around a reading I had down that way, and how clever I felt about all this (me being not much of a careful planner). Crikey, even Penny was impressed. Except when I showed up for the reading, all smug and bouncy in precise disproportion to the ass end of the Subaru, which was dragging something fierce, I learned I was exactly 24-hours early.

Our bigger, primary heating stove is a Vermont Elm. I bought it used, too, off a dude who restores them in these parts. I cannot overstate just how awesome this stove is. It has a 24″-long firebox which is…. get this, round. You know, like a chunk of wood that hasn’t been split. Even better, the door opening is round. This means I can generally manage to load the handful of firewood lengths that thwart my best intentions with the splitting maul, something that was not true of our previous stove, an otherwise decent little Jotul with a typical square door opening. Both Penny and I are pretty handy with a maul, and I’m not above employing our “redneck wood splitter” (this would be our chainsaw, used in a with-the-grain ripping fashion, a manner in which chainsaws are not designed to be used and I therefore cannot recommend). But it sure is nice to know that I can just let the more stubborn pieces stay whole, and still be able to cram them into the Elm. I also like the Elm ’cause it’s stone-simple: No catalytic converter to replace, no complicated damper system, no nothing, really, but that beautiful round opening and a delightful habit of putting out some serious heat.

We actually put a fair bit more wood through the Sweetheart, than the Elm. That’s because we actually cook on it (really!), because it heats a portion of our water, and because the kitchen is Grand Central Station of our humble home. Right now there are two 5-gallon pots of chicken stock simmering on the cookstove, a pair of Rye’s gloves drying on the warming shelf, and a tea kettle boiling away. This morning, I cooked eggs and sausage atop it, and come lunch, we’ll fry up a mess o’ pork chops and ‘taters. What’s for dinner? It’s anyone’s guess, really, but I know where it’ll be cooked.

We love cooking on wood. It demands a level of engagement with the process and the food itself that simply can’t be replicated when all you gotta do is twist a dial. Cooking on a wood stove means you’re constantly moving things around, finding the sweet spot where the heat of the stovetop matches the task at hand. It means you’re frequently filling the firebox: Slim sticks of paper birch to get ‘er roaring real quick; a thick slab or two of sugar maple to mellow her out a bit. The only downside of putting so much wood through the cookstove is that we gotta put up a lot of cookstove wood. Because the firebox is fairly small, our cookstove wood can’t be much over 16″ long, and about 5″ in diameter. I bet it takes literally twice as long to put up a cord of cookstove wood, than it does to put up a cord for the Elm. Actually, I bet it’s more than twice as long. Sure, it’s the same total volume of wood, but it’s a hell of a lot more splitting and bucking and throwing and stacking. Still and all. I’ll take it.

With the exception of our aforementioned redneck wood splitter, we split all our wood by hand, maybe six cords each year. This is not because we have some philosophical aversion to combustion power, but because splitting wood on a cold winter’s day is pretty much the pinnacle of good, clean country livin’. It’s the sort of repetitive, not-too-demanding physical labor that allows one to drift off into the far recesses of the mind or, if you’re splitting with Penny, chat about what trees should be planted when the ground thaws, or simply work together in amiable silence. Here’s a small piece of unasked-for advice: Don’t ever dismiss the soft pleasure of amiable silence. Sometimes I think you can communicate more by shutting your mouth for a while, than by giving voice to all the words in the world.

I’ve also come to think of splitting wood by hand as a litmus test: If I can at least manage this, then I can probably manage whatever else this place is likely throw at me. It’s pretty simple test, I grant you, and doesn’t exactly account for all the possible contingencies of this life.

I’ll tell you what, though: It ain’t failed me yet.