Thursday, January 7, 2010

Firewood fellers

I had been trying to find a couple extra cords of firewood. I had expected to get this from a local supplier, but the semester was too busy and I had no spare time, so I waited too long, and the supplier sold all he had.

The procedure for finding mid-winter firewood in Maine is to first peruse Uncle Henry's. Uncle Henry's classified ad booklet, published each Thursday and continuously updated online, is a Maine institution, beating Craig's List by far in popularity, and over the years Aimee and I have bought and sold cars, furniture, livestock, and a dozen other kinds of things I can't think of right now, using this publication.

Ordering Uncle Henry's firewood, however, is a sketchy business. There's a certain amount of trepidation. You never know quite what you going to get and when you will get it. The quantity and quality of firewood sold varies quite a bit. A cord of wood should be a stack 4 x 4 x 8 feet. And firewood should be hardwood, and from one of the better species, or a mix of good species, like oak, ash, maple, beech, or birch. It should be as labeled. If it's advertised as dry hardwood mix, it should be dry, and a hardwood mix, not green and 30% pine or hemlock.

But it rarely is.

So I was pleased when out of the woods two strangers came. The two fellers I had ordered wood from finally showed up. They were three day's late, but they gave good measure, and it was all nice hardwood, mostly maple and ash, two very good firewood species. The only way the quality of the wood could have been better is if it was all beech, but there's not that much beech to buy around here. My regular supplier provides a mix of about 70% beech, which is very nice.

They had advertised a trailer load 17 by 6 by 2 feet, which if you do the math is 204 cubic feet, while a cord is 128 cubic feet. The load when it came, was heaped up nicely. They helped me throw it into the crib, so it wasn't left cluttering up my dooryard, for me to move by myself at the weekend, a good two-hour job.

I was worried as to how dry it was, though. It didn't look so dry. None of the tell-tale cracks in the end. But the guys said that although it was felled this summer and stacked in log-length, it wasn't bucked up until yesterday.

Only one way to find out, then. I threw a couple logs on both stoves. It burned clean and brightly.

Victory! Ta da. Very happy with my load of wood.

When I was a kid, we read Robert Frost, but it didn't make much sense in 1970's Sheffield, heated by coal and natural gas.

But for some reason the first four stanzas of the second verse stuck in my mind, perhaps because I was lucky enough to have an outdoor job in a nursery as a teenager, and learned to split wood, feed a wood stove, and do a dozen highly other useful things there.


Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!"
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut's now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You'd think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
The judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

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