Dignified Death be Damned


I’ve been enjoying writing again, which is nice, although I reserve the right to freak out and delete 90% of my work in this space (again). Actually, I bet I will do that someday; I learned a lot about my work the last time I did so, it was worth a ton, and I think it’s a truism that an astute writer learns as much – if not more – from the work he or she deletes as from the stuff that endures. Also, on the above picture: For various reasons, I don’t post many photos of myself, but I thought this one was pretty cool, mostly because of the birch. I’m harvesting the bark, which is amazing stuff. Since I haven’t cut through the cambium, the tree will be fine, and the outer bark will eventually regenerate. 

I spent much of Saturday in the woods, felling, skidding, and processing a white ash. It was a beautiful tree, extending into serpentine curves along each of its three fat boles, containing maybe a cord of firewood in total. The curves began about two thirds of the way up the stem of each bole, and I was reminded again of outreached fingers, but this time not the gnarled, arthritic appendages of the apple trees. A pianist, maybe. Or a maker of fine instruments, one who wields his tools with micrometer precision. And though it was one of the tallest trees within sight, there was nothing magisterial in its bearing; it was too graceful for that.

But it had been wounded during the last softwood harvest on this land ten years ago or more, most likely by the outermost log in a hitch of logs, scraping off a swath of protective bark as the skidder passed. The tree might have healed – many do – but this one did not, and at least half the upper branches bore no leaves, and while there would have been nothing wrong with letting it proceed along its slow path toward dignified death, the fire that heats this home is like a newborn baby, wanting only to be lovingly tended and fed no matter what the costs might be and who might bear them. Dignified death be damned.

It rained as I worked – suddenly, it’s always raining – and I remembered how much I like working in the rain in the forest, how the moisture releases colors and smells, the yeasty sweetness of the soil and the fresh cut stumps, the acridness of the saw exhaust, and even the occasional whiff of myself when I reach to raise the visor of my helmet to rub-scratch a cheek itch with the back of hand, the skin there salted by sweat, smudged with woods detritus from wriggling my arm under the log to affix the choker, a little high-test gasoline on my fingers from when I’d overfilled the saw and wetted the cap. And then I remembered something I hadn’t thought of in years – decades, really – about the time Trevor and I ran out of gas along a back road at something like two in the morning, and how we snuck into a barn and found a can and emptied it into his Volkswagen, and then days later felt so wracked by guilt that we snuck back, took the empty can, refilled it, and returned it under the cover of night. Crikes. It would’ve been easier to just walk home. And then I thought about how many times I’ve smelled gas in the intervening years – hundreds, at least – and wondered why I remembered this now. For that, I have no answer.

Ash is generally considered premium firewood – it burns pretty hot and long enough, dries quick, and splits like it’s been waiting to fall apart since the day it came together – but I just don’t find it that engaging, I guess because it’s a little too easy. I can swing a splitting axe into ash all day and not even be sore the next morning, and what fun is that? I guess I like to feel the work I’ve done. I guess it’s proof of something.

Me, I’m a beech man. I love the way it holds a fire, and it’s just hard enough to split that it feels like I’ve earned it. But there’s not much beech on this land. Not much ash, either, come to think of it, so mostly I’ve been working my way through the stands of sugar maple, culling the dead and dying, burning them down to near nothing, then spreading their ashes on the pasture without even a hint of ceremony. Sugar maple’s real good firewood, too, though sometimes it feels like maybe I have to work a little too hard for it. Jeez. See how fickle I am?

I think I’ve lived without wood heat for maybe two winters of my life, both rentals in my early 20’s. I was born into a house with wood heat, raised in houses with wood heat, and have now built and lived in two houses with wood heat. The older I get, the better I am learning to avoid beginning sentences with the phrase “I would never,” so I won’t say that I’d never live without wood heat, only that I cannot imagine living without wood heat. This is in part because I like the vagaries of the heat itself – the inconsistency of it, the engagement with it, the knowing and patience it demands, even the functional beauty of a good stove – but also because I like working in the woods. A lot. It contains, for me, the perfect ratio of risk to reward, of strength and finesse, of skill and a certain brute persistence. It keeps you on your toes, forces your attention to the matter at hand. There are many tools that can be used in a half-minded way, but a chainsaw is not one of them.

It was nearly 9:00 by the time I walked down from where I’d been splitting that ash, on a little mossed knoll above the barn. I was shocked to find it so late (I don’t wear a watch, or carry a device that tells time); my eyes had adjusted with the waning light, and I would’ve sworn it was 8:00 or even earlier. It was cool, too, the way it’s been for the last week or so, cool enough that though I’d been splitting for nearly two hours straight, I was uncomfortable in my tee shirt, which was damp from the showers and the earlier sweat.

So what I did was go inside and start a fire.

21 thoughts on “Dignified Death be Damned”

  1. Wow. You sure look a lot like your father 🙂 This week someone told me that my daughter, Heather, looks just like me. Funny how that works. Now my kid lives in Shanghai, China…a long way from good old Collar Hill!

      1. Wendy and you are both right: your “Harvesting Birch Bark” photo truly represents a younger (and even more handsome) version of the VERY handsome himself Geof.

  2. Your writing today reminded me that it is about time to begin the process of filling the wood shed for winter although here in the San Juans of Southern Colorado spring/summer has just begun.

    1. yeah, I’m a little late… I like to have the wood up by June 1. But I’m real close to being done.


  3. I have a couple questions: have you ever chopped oak? That’s what we use here. How does it compare to ash and maple in the chopping? We have to use a log splitter because We Be Old. The other question: Do you use a miter saw for any of your woodworking? I want to get a miter saw for my husband for his birthday but I can’t get any good recommendations except for extremely expensive power saws. Thanks in advance.

    1. I have not split oak… there’s not much of it this far north. Far as I know, it’s super dense, and probably pretty tough splitting. But a powered splitter makes all the difference.

      When you say “miter saw,” do you mean electric, or hand? If electric, there are a couple of options: A regular “chop” saw, which does compound angles, but only with pretty narrow stock, and a “sliding compound miter saw” which can handle much wider stock. The former can probably be had for less than $200 new; the latter is more like $400-$500. Used would be a bunch cheaper, of course. In terms of brands, you generally can’t go wrong with Makita, DeWalt, Bosch, or Milwaukee. There are a bunch of other good ones, too… these are just the brands I’m most familiar with.


      1. Mebbe so, mebbe so. We do have more wood types around here but a huge amount of oak and pine.

        I mean a hand saw and miter stand that cuts angles on 4″ moulding. In our case, baseboards. The Marty talked me out of crown moulding. Too much sez he! He wants a non-mechanized set-up. He believes the mechanized saws are not precise enough. The cheap-o manual version we bought at Home Despot was almost a waste of $5.98 but it gave us a taste and now he wants mo’ bedda.

  4. I bought that same tee-shirt same color in Morrisville at that place before it closed years ago. The old school salesman told me how good it was and he was right. Wondered if you liked yours as much….It’s a hell of a tee-shirt

  5. An entire cord of wood from a single tree? Must have been a heck of a big tree to make 128 CF, a 4’x4’x8′, stack of wood.

  6. I remember you once wrote about experiencing central heat and realizing some discomfort in not knowing where the heat was coming from. That stuck with me and has come to mind many times since when I have stuck my hands out toward the flames. Thanks for that!

  7. Beech is awesome burning stuff. Folks around here are burning a lot of ash, because they are dying off sooo fast. Emerald Ash Borer is bad around here. Do you have that pest up there? I’ve got quite a few standing dead ash to process on my land, if only I have a house to heat with it by winter!

  8. Ben: Nice discourse on the wood heating thing–you captured a lot. Much the same going on here, except that last year, bowing to age, we did 2 things different: 1) had a few cords delivered; and 2) bought a 37-ton splitter. Had qualms about both, but am trying to make peace with Father Time (is there a Mother Time?)

    Tons of beech here–all you can buck up. It’s the blister-bark thing.

    I would love to be able to read what you write in your blog when you are the age I am now, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen.

    But don’t stop writing on my account.

  9. I like how you snuck in the confession about the gas. Another good thing about Ash is that it burns good unseasoned. I like to start my fires with sassafras and tulip and burn oak and hickory when it gets cold. Only wood I don’t burn is elm and black gum. Saw a good presentation on splitting rails using black gum “gluts” which is a wedge in common parlance.

  10. Ha, so peeling some of the birch doesn’t kill the tree! My grandma was wrong! But that’s probably the mentality of someone who sits indoors all day, drinking coke and smoking cigarette after cigarette….you start making shit up so that your granddaughter stops peeling your birch trees. 35 years later, I’m going to find me some birch. A few years ago I bought an axe….I have no idea of how to cut wood but I figure by having this axe it will help manifest land with wood. It’s really quite limiting when you don’t own any actual resources…it sucks. That’s probably how the Native Americans feel.

  11. That’s a good gas stealing story. One dark night we ran my mother’s ’72 Maverick out of gas, so we snuck into Carl DeSilva’s father’s barn and stole a can. Except it turned out to be pre-mixed two stroke gas, so the car made it about 100 yards before dying. So then we had to go steal some real gas and a hose and siphon out the bad gas by mouth. Whatever we were up to that night, it can’t have been worth it. I like to think I’ve smartened up some since then, but I doubt it.

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