My good dog Gus follows close behind, but at safe distance.
The crusty top layer of snow crunches below. There are no other sounds, save one. My chain saw revs as we reach our destination, a small stand of dead dogwoods and sweet gums near a recently cleared power line. A shelter dog, part-mastiff, all-loyal, Gus sits forward on his haunches when we arrive, mild concern reflected on his layered, furrowed brows, making sure no harm comes my way.
We are repeating an annual mission that is routine, dangerous, primal and exhilarating. Were cutting down trees for next years wood supply. This year is over on the wood heat calendar. The next few weeks, were just burning old, gnarly, found wood trash wood really. Anything random from the old woodpiles, except pine.
Each year, at the cusp of fading winter and promising spring, I walk the woods, looking up, for damaged crowns and leaning branches, and down, for rotten trunks and clustered stumps. I dont need to cut down perfectly good trees; there are plenty of trees that just need to be culled from the forest.
Every year as a household we might go through a dozen trees to stay warm. This winter was crazy. The woodpile (including next years security blanket) was sitting pretty until the polar vortex rolled over us. Those glaciers plundered entire sides of my trusty woodshed. On the positive side, the inside water never froze, and were powering toward putting away the ax and saw for the season and picking up the shovel and hoe.
Gus and I are doing our job. Just like all the good dogs before him on these tours, hes eager but a little wary. No dog or person wants a tree to twist unpredictably in the air, change direction and fall on them. We love the woods, its secrets, its patterns, its seasonal changes, how much it gives back to us. Toby, Mack and Joey were great companions before him as we wandered the gray, still winter forest. Especially in Gus world, any day with sticks flying through the air, or branches that need hauling, is a good day.
I used to feel invincible out there in the woods with my dog and my chain saw, a splitting maul and a metal cable come-along. I could go all day, wielding the bright orange saw like a light saber. These days Im more respectful of the act, much more careful of any consequences. Now my more reasonable limit is a full tank of 2-cycle oil mix, then its time to come up for air. The dogs seem to like that safer commitment, too. Theres plenty to do after the red off switch is flipped.
Its not just about cutting trees down. After the adrenaline rush of wondering if Ive played it right with the wedge notch and back cut comes the slow, methodical, physical job I love; all the activity that turns a 40-foot tree in the forest into a tin-topped, reassuring, 15-foot-long tucked-in woodpile.
Harvesting the good wood means trimming off the rotten branches and unusable twigs for a bonfire or debris pile, cutting up the trunk, splitting the logs that are too big for the stove, and clearing paths to a convenient edge of the woods.
In nine months everything will make its meandering way to the toasty living room. And the mini-timber site, once a scene of concentrated noise and activity, will return to nature.
My daughter has become quite an urban dweller up in D.C. I cant keep up with all her metropolitan escapades. While she lives on the eighth floor of an apartment building overlooking the Washington Monument, her favorite television show is Ultimate Survival Alaska. I doubt there is any overlap in her daily life and that of the contestants on that extreme reality show. But there are perhaps similar parallel themes for any city person, especially this winter: endurance, racing against time and elements.
But if she wanted to, I bet she could handle it. When I told her I had started cutting down trees for next winters heat, she got all excited, as if what I was doing was relevant and contemporary, of all things!
I know how to do that! Do you know how to cut out the notch the right way? she exclaimed. Ill send you the video!
I had just come in the house from cutting down a huge tulip poplar on the south side of a stand of blueberry bushes. The tree had been sucking up nutrient water and casting broader shadows every year. Plus, it was too close to a maple tree. Alas, survival of the fittest. I went back out and found the initial sawdust covered wedge Id cut, 20 inches wide, 6 inches tall, and mailed it to her.