Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fuel for the blue norther nights

Sometime today I'll put the last of the maple and oak that we cut in the spring of 2010 into the woodstove. It'll mark the end of a four-year effort to clean up the woods around our place following the brutal winter of 2010, which began with a vicious snowstorm a week before Christmas 2009 and finally ended in April, with some of the worst ice-and-snow damage that this place has seen in the more than 40 years we've been coming up to this Patrick County ridgeline.  There were huge limbs down, entire trees aslant and tops broken out of maples and beech, as if some giant had stalked through in a bad mood and shredded the forest into a mess.

 We hired a platoon of woodcutters with a cherry picker, a half dozen chain saws and a Diesel-power chipper shredder to make mulch from the limbs, cut the big stuff into firewood lengths and throw it into piles around the place. They worked for a solid week and threw everything into big piles, getting it all cleaned up in early June.  Ten days later lightning struck our log home, burned it nearly to the foundation and scorched so many trees we had to take down another three dozen before the rebuilding could begin.  So we've had a lot of firewood for years, burning it as fast as we reasonably could, losing some of it to rot and bugs when we couldn't get it all split, stacked and off the ground fast enough.

The longtime plan has been to cull the deadfalls for our firewood around this 66-acre family property  so we wouldn't have to cut down the mature and maturing oaks and hickories and maples that adorn these hills.  There's enough old locust to keep us warm for a long time, if we can keep enough sharp chains on the saws to cut the stuff to length. Cutting old locust is somewhat like cutting pig iron. You can get through it if you've got enough time and patience, but it will wear you out first.

But there's one more farm shed to build to shelter the tractor attachments -- bush hogs, sickle mowers, augur, box blade, scrape blade and so on that have accumulated back in the woods. So the other day I hired a woodcutter to drop 21 trees that I have had to back the tractor around,  slide in between and crank the wheels over hard to get by just to drop off one attachment -- and then go through a new set of gyrations to load on another.   I'm tired of building sheds, but tireder still of having to thread the sylvan needle just to drop a rotary cutter and pick up the snow blade.  I need an open space and a functional shed that's easy to back into.

So this winter's project is not the new shelves for my writing nook, but instead the cutting up of red oak and white oak and hickory and beech (or is that birch? Dang if I can keep it straight) and locust and sassafras and maple into firewood billets, stacking the small limbs for the chipper and splitting the good stuff for the woodstove. If the weather would give me a week I could finish the job by Saturday, but in winter you don't get a week.  You sometimes get a full day, but even when it's dry it's hard to get going early when the mercury says it's in the teens or twenties and your joints are lobbying for another cup of coffee by the fire.

I've got enough wood -- split from another project the last two summers -- split for this year and probably enough to get through next fall, so the stuff I'm splitting these days won't be needed until early 2015. That should allow enough time for proper seasoning, if I can get it all cut and split and stacked in a way so the near-constant winds up here can dry up the wood. Those winds are the reason we think about firewood morning, noon and night. Especially night, when there's a minus sign in front of the temperature reading and the blue northers are wailing away.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A balmy 17-degree morning

Yikes!  That was chilly!  Our gizmos tell us the temperatures went down to -2 degrees here, with a wind chill factor of -19, but we were relatively warm compared to some of our neighbors who saw more extreme lows and worse wind chills.  But these awful numbers lately just give folks something to brag about, ignoring the prime fact of life up here:  When it gets below freezing -- or even just above freezing, and the wind is blowing even gently, and you are pushing the yon side of 67 years with a pair of worn-out knees and knobby hands missing bits of fingers left behind in the blades of planers, hedge trimmers and the early-pop-top beer cans that produced an edge the masters of Sheffield could admire -- it really doesn't matter how much lower it gets. When you're cold you're cold, and the rest is just the second paragraph.

So, for the record, we could hear it getting cold in the night Monday. The deck popped and creaked and the roof moaned and groaned and the woodstove chimney ticked and hummed as the big locust tree rounds jacked up the heat in a rosy inferno.  At dawn the rhododendron's natural barometer looked scary; when the mercury gets down around 20 or so, the rhodo leaves curl and look like a waxy green cigar. But when it got into single digits they curled so tight they looked like long thin cigarettes.  Or cigarillos, anyway.

You can tell a lot from a dog, and when Sadie, our aging French Brittany Spaniel, needed to go out to do her business, she kept looking around as if to say, "WTF?"  At one point I thought she was prancing as she picked up her steps, then I realized she was trying to levitate all fours so she could do what dogs do outside without having to actually touch hard frozen miserable ground.  She and I spent most of the time lying around in front of the fire, napping, stretching and yawning.  As W.C. Fields observed, repeatedly, in the 1933 film A Fatal Glass of Beer, "And it ain't a fit night out for man nor beast!" 

But today looks a lot better. As I write it's 17 degrees on the digital Is/Was, the sun is pouring in and they say the temp might shoot all the way up to 30 today.  Good golly, I've got to dig out the flip-flops and Bermuda shorts and  put on Jimmy Buffet.  Have to watch out for those pop-tops, though.