By Will Weaver
"One could do worse than be a swinger of birches," wrote poet Robert Frost. He could have added, "Or be a maker of woodpiles." Like many Minnesotans, I have a relationship with firewood that is long and enduring. My father often said, "It's time to make some firewood," a usage that, as a kid, I always found odd. Only nature and God could make wood, though of course I knew what he meant.
Work. That's what he meant. But as a youth, it took me some time to understand that it is exactly the work -- satisfying labor -- that catches and holds the true firewood maker. There is a need in all of us to work, to gather, to store up, though less of a need in some people than in others, my father would have said. He once remarked, "You can tell a lot about people by their firewood piles."
One of my earliest chores on the farm was to fill the wood box in the cold porch. This meant sledding or wheel-barrowing loads of slabs or split chunks from the nearby woodshed. Back then, the ever-needful wood box seemed as large as a railroad car. Once, to speed up the process and get on to more fun things, I lay an old chair sideways in the monstrous box and carefully arranged firewood over it. The effect was twofold: The box looked quite full, and I was in trouble quite soon.
As I grew taller and stronger, the work of firewood grew bigger as well. My father and uncles put up firewood every spring, in March, usually, when the snow was gone but the ground still frozen. It was a brisk, bright, chilly time of year -- too early to plow or plant -- but perfect (as I understood later) for working in the woods. The ground held up the tractor tires; there was no mud; there were no ticks or mosquitoes; and we did not get overheated and drenched with sweat while felling, blocking, and splitting wood.
During my spring break from school, my father always had a firewood permit ready and waiting. Our farm was near Park Rapids in Hubbard County; the permit allowed us to gather standing dead trees, as well as downed trees, on county-owned land, usually parcels on which there had been a recent timber harvest. (Some Minnesota counties with timberland have permits available today. For a $25 fee, you get a map and a county forester to steer you toward the best spot to gather up to 10 cords of wood for personal use.)
Back on the farm, we made firewood the old-fashioned way. With our tractor and a heavy-duty wagon -- long and narrow and supported by two tall, battered truck tires -- we cut and loaded by hand logs of pine, birch, and occasionally red oak. My father preferred jack pine, as it "burned hotter." Fortunately, he was also adept at managing the pines' creosote residue, which could build up in the chimney and ignite. There was never a chimney fire in our family until I had one many years later in my own new house (a story more embarrassing than dramatic, and a lesson learned about yearly chimney cleaning).
Making firewood in my youth was hard work with no pay. My father and I transported home and stockpiled several cords of dead wood; my uncles and cousins did the same. As an extended family, we pooled our labor to "block" the wood, that is, cut the logs into stove-size lengths. This was hard, long, and dangerous work.
My uncle had an M Farmall tractor with a buzz saw rigged on the front. The tractor's horizontal arbor held a round, vertically positioned saw blade as big as a hula hoop -- a hula hoop ringed with shark's teeth. When the tractor's flywheel turned the belt around the blade's axle, the buzz saw twirled in the sunlight like a pinwheel turning -- faster and faster -- until its teeth sent out a high, fine humming sound.
With our small gang of men and boys, we lifted each log, then advanced it, moving in step, perpendicular across the smooth, wooden arbor arm and against the whining blade. Each time the blade sliced off a chunk, the tractor's engine growled a full note lower, then quickly gathered itself to sing at higher revolutions per minute. Step and push, step and push. The motion was both forward and sideways, as the log shortened; and it was crucial to keep the ground clear beneath our feet -- no bark strips or limbs to stumble over.
Young boys stayed on the far, safe end of the log. My father and an uncle took the most dangerous spots on either side of the blade: one man pushed the log into the singing saw teeth; the other caught the severed block and pitched it sideways. The "thrower" had the most work. By increments, he handled 100 percent of each log's weight. Grab and toss, grab and toss.
The tractor's exhaust pipe thrummed as steadily as river water over a dam. The noise washed away all but the loudest shout. As the hours wore on, fragrant yellow sawdust coned up knee-high beneath the blade. Intermittently, one of us boys would get a hand signal to spell the thrower. It was always a thrill to step into a man's spot -- a rite of passage -- as we boys proved ourselves by slowly graduating "up the log" and closer to the blade.
There were lessons back then, even among us boys. Don't rush. Pay attention. Keep the ground clear beneath your feet. Tie your boot laces in double knots. Wear gloves. Make sure the equipment -- the tractor, its belts, the arbor, the saw blade -- stays in good repair and safe. Don't try to finish the whole pile of logs in one afternoon. Come back tomorrow when everyone feels fresh and rested. Find the rhythm of the work and stay within it. And, if possible, make it fun -- which we did, in small ways.
During our lunch and cookie breaks, there was talk, kidding, and fellowship. Relief from the work noise made the sounds of the farm woodlot all the crisper: a crow's huck-huck-huck, a pileated woodpecker's sharp cackle, a cow lowing sadly about something. Our breaks were not long because sweat chilled quickly when the air was 40 degrees or lower. And it was important to keep moving before we became stiff, clumsy, or sleepy. And, of course, once one pile was done, there was another waiting at an uncle's farm. That was one of the main lessons: With firewood you are never done.
Since those days, except for a four-year stretch when I lived in California, I have been both a maker of firewood and an observer of woodpiles. Like the ant and the grasshopper in Aesop's fable, people who burn wood vary greatly in their preparation for winter. Some have unstacked piles -- the chunks scattered where a truck dumped them. Others have tidy ricks, bookended by steel fence posts. Still others have immaculate free-standing squares, their corners crisscrossed as formally as a bricklayer's edges. My favorite is the "igloo" pile, wherein the firewood pieces, one atop the next, rise up vertically even as they tilt toward the center to form a perfect, water-shedding dome.
I now see firewood through my father's eyes, because I am now the adult -- with a son of my own who helps me make firewood. On a warm and humid June day, in a woodlot near Bemidji, he and I are hauling split oak pieces with a riding lawnmower and two-wheeled garden wagon. It is a laughably small operation compared with "back in the day."
My son is 25, a graduate student home briefly between summer sessions, a tall, rangy kid who doesn't mind spending time with his "Pops." He's a musician who will never own a chainsaw or work near a buzz saw, and that's just fine by me; but he remembers his grandfather, respects the old days, and likes the physical work of throwing firewood. While summer is not the time to be in the woods -- we are surrounded by mosquitoes and deer flies and watchful for poison ivy -- I am happy to work with his schedule and make firewood when he is home.
He and I split this wood last Christmas when it was 10 below zero. With quick, whipping strikes from a light trimming ax, the red oak blocks broke apart like glass. The sound, again and again in the snowy woodlot, echoed like the sharp, ringing knock of struck bowling pins. We made a lot of wood quickly that cold day -- and now we are hauling home the last pieces.
"Remember this one?" my son says. He holds up a heavy, forked chunk with crazy grain -- a piece that nearly defeated us.
"Yes," I say.
"The other half has got to be here somewhere," he says, pushing aside grass and ferns with his boot until he finds it. He holds up both pieces, then fits them together like puzzle pieces.
"When they go into the fireplace this winter, I'll think of you," I say.
"You'd better," he says, and we finish up our load.
There's an old saying that firewood warms you twice, but it's many more times than that.