Archive for October, 2009

Firewood and Lace

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

It’s Halloween and I’m a zombie. . . .and I haven’t even dressed up or applied any pallid make-up. I’m feeling beat after a day of multi-tasking and my little plate of pickled herring and crackers and a cold beer are my own treat.

Nancy and I have been back at Basecamp in Minnesota after leaving the Yukon Outpost, a little over a month ago. Much of our time has been catching up with family and friends, getting settled in cleaning, unpacking and trying to find a garlic press. I suspect we might find it as we ready ourselves to follow the bird migration north, returning to the Yukon, next May.

Perhaps I was punished and transformed to an eventual zombie for languishing in bed in the gray dawning this morning while I enjoyed time reading my current novel. Maybe the fact that I am reading fiction, rather than the usual non-fiction, was enough to send me towards the dead.

Nancy is in the cities staying at a sister’s house so I am tending the fire here at the Basecamp. With daylight coming on, I had a terrible thirst for a cup of coffee, but first I had to earn it by cleaning ashes out of the kitchen stove and then lighting a warming fire. Then I began assembling the components for a big pot of French Canadian split pea soup. While the soup simmered, I sipped strong coffee dusted in the bathroom and swept the kitchen floor.

I was nursing a second cup of coffee while reading a handful of emails when I learned of the death of a friend’s father. I immediately sat down and wrote him a card. This was followed by another sympathy note to another dear one who lost her husband.

Suddenly at midday, the clouds parted and the sun broke out. Rather than run for the shadows in a Dracula sort of way, I scurried from the dirge and headed outdoors. I grabbed my limp, leather gloves and hustled out to the woodshed to split some firewood.

It’s irritating to establish a rhythm of swinging a maul, bisecting a hefty piece of oak and then have the splitting block tip over. Clearly, the stout chunk of wood that I used to set my blocks of oak on had seen its better days, as it is a bit tippy and punky. So my task was interrupted by the need to head to the woods to cut a new stable piece of oak for which to serve up pieces of firewood.

I confess I am easily sidetracked. My wife, Nancy, is often directing a started conversation back to the original source of discussion.

As I fetched the chainsaw and other tools to load in the garden cart, I wondered what it would look like if I had simply assigned one task to this Saturday. What if I made it a mindful Saturday and wallowed in the silence that could be a viable option. What if we all practiced an occasional
‘Zen-turday?’ Somehow the idea of having a single task to perform seemed lovely and indulgent. Why is it that I tend to mark a ‘good day’ by measuring how much I have accomplished? Am I cursed by a Midwest work ethic? Or am I insecure in my accomplishments and need to boost my ego by crossing off those tasks scribbled on a scrap of paper?

In the Yukon splitting wood is much easier than here where we have multiple species of hardwoods. In the Yukon I have two choices of firewood and both are softwoods. Lodgepole pine and spruce. Reading grain prior to delivering the arc of a swinging six-pound maul is not as critical with softwoods as it is when dealing with hardwoods. Yukon friends who make their living in working with wood wince when they hear that we burn mostly oak and some black cherry.

So looking for a new splitting block was like going on a hunt. I was hunting a dead oak that had its growth rings crowding each other making it dense and capable of fending off years of delivering well-aimed splitting maul blows.

I had forgotten how tangled the woods are here in east central Minnesota compared to the boreal Yukon. The pine forest where I cut in the Yukon was mostly clear of underbrush and made for easy walking. Here I had tangling vines of wild grape, hazel brush, young cherry trees, elderberry and multiple saplings of at least half a dozen species of trees. It was like a jungle.

I lost my focus for an hour as I confronted the alien buckthorn. Pursuing yet another task, I trotted back to the house for a strong herbicide and a bucksaw and lopping shears. I sawed the invasive buckthorn trunks, dribbled the toxin on the cut stump and moved on to the next.

In a corner of our woods oak wilt disease provided me with a good selection of splitting blocks. It didn’t take long to locate the perfect one. I found a section of red oak trunk where three large limbs spread out like an upside down tripod. Cutting this junction of three distinct platters of concentric rings was slow but I knew that this oak platter of merging growth rings would stand up to many years of my swinging maul.

I manhandled the newly designated splitting block into the cart and weaved my way through the woods pulling my treasure back to the house. Daylight and my body were fading. I was hungry and tired and the prospects of a cold beer and pickled herring and crackers urged me on.

Inside the house, I added some kindling to the reenergize the kitchen stove.
I glanced to the side and my eyes landed on a lovely lace valence that I was going to hang. And so once again, my intent was thwarted by yet another task. Luckily, hanging the sweet lace valence over the door window took only ten minutes.

So perhaps I should honor Halloween as a ‘renaissance guy.’ A guy who can wax poetic in a sympathy card, split stubborn oak chunks and hang lace curtains all in the span of a day.

Someone’s at the door. Now where is that bag of candy?