Obsession in the Woods
It fools us every year, though we know by November 1 winter can arrive in earnest. After a couple of days of light snow and chilly rain in October, I was back to sleeping with the windows open, more chances to hear the coyotes singing at night. I was lulled momentarily into Fall mode again, but, quick as an arctic blast, the weather has turned. Several days a week I still run the dogs, but with temps in the 20s there is no lingering at a bench with my pad. Now writing takes place near the wood stove. During colder days the stove is a voracious resident. At the start of wood stove season, I think it’s a good time to share with you one of my earliest published essays. It appeared in both Montana Woman and Country Woman magazines:
I have collected many things in my life, everything from salt and pepper shakers and teddy bears to old perfume bottles. Now I collect firewood. I had no idea what installing a woodstove would do to my life.
I thought a woodstove was a good alternative to electric heat and the rising cost of fuel. I have wood on my property – lots of wood that is dead or needs thinned – and I was anxious to get out there and clean it up and save some money. I bought a chain saw. I bought heavy boots. I went out and started cutting and found it was addicting. Then I noticed it creeping into other aspects of my life.
This spring a friend, Suzanne, and I walked our dogs in the woods – so much to see and explore. We’d take picnics and sit by lakes and creeks and absorb the beauty of the mountains. The dogs would play and wear themselves out, always with energy for one more turn in the road, one more squirrel that needed chasing. Spring is an awesome time to be in the woods – wildflowers and fresh streams and trees greening up – and we ventured out as often as we could. Slowly I began to realize, though, that I was not looking at the scenery anymore. I was looking down, at slash piles and logs on the sides of the road. I’d see piles of wood and fret that it was too far to carry back to the truck. I wanted to stay on roads now that we could drive on – not wanting to park and go walking down quiet, narrow paths. I would ask Suzanne if she wouldn’t mind carrying an armload of wood on the way back to the truck. Going down the highway I’d find myself stopping for some piece of potential firewood in a ditch.
At home I noticed my driveway was getting crowded. There were piles of wood everywhere – each one representing a foray into the woods or a visit to a neighbor’s house who had just cleared out some trees. A stranger stopped by one day after seeing my woodpile, figured I was an avid collector, and wondered if I was interested in more. He had plenty and would just have to take it to the dump; he would be glad to bring it by. In town I ran into a neighbor I hardly knew who had heard from another neighbor that I was interested in wood – he had some if I would like it. I was always glad for more wood.
Every morning before work I chopped a wheelbarrow full and wheeled it up to the house. I piled it in neat stacks, feeling rich, all this fuel I was amassing. It was a woodsy thing to do, and I loved the thought of a big woodpile. I loved the muscles I was building, too, and how good it felt to swing the ax, hammer the maul, and see results. Neighbors commented on how strong I must be, how self-reliant. I was proud. Each day the pile by the house grew taller; then it started to lean. I came around the east side of the house one day and a whole section had fallen over. As I carefully stacked it again I had to reconsider the management of my wood wealth so it didn’t tumble down on my dog or me.
In the meantime, the pile in my driveway kept getting bigger. I just couldn’t say no when more was offered. I had nice big chunks from a neighbor who had larches – larch is good stuff; I couldn’t turn it down. A long-dead aspen fell over the trail at the lake – someone called to see if I would like to come get it, and I went right over.
Then it snowed one late spring day – all my wood was so lovely in the snow, a backwoods postcard. I skipped a day or so of chopping wood then, and pretty soon more days. It wasn’t long before summer came, those first days of real warmth, and pretty soon I wasn’t chopping my wheelbarrow of wood every morning. With summer comes other chores, hard, time-consuming chores, and it’s hot. I was ignoring my woodpile, and before long I hardly noticed it anymore. I had all summer to chop wood. I had lots of time.
As Montana summers go, it was over before I knew it. The stacks in the driveway had not gone away. As my obsession became obvious even to me, I finally started turning down offers of wood – no more wood this year – I had run out of room. I had neglected my muscles, too, and fall was coming fast; I would never get all that wood chopped. Now neighbors were wondering what I intended to do with my wood collection. Snow would be coming soon and I was not ready. Someone mentioned a log splitter – something I was not aware of. My obsession had gotten bigger than I was, I had to admit defeat, and so a rented log splitter was towed home.
Log splitters are amazing, noisy, very effective machines, and it wasn’t long before neighbors came to see what was happening in my driveway. A log splitter is also a man’s toy, and soon I had 3 men happily splitting and stacking wood, taking turns with the levers, adjusting the carburetor, muscling, piling and throwing wood. The slow, powerful ram of the splitter very efficiently did in moments what it would take me several good whacks to accomplish. Fresh new stacks of neat firewood soon ringed my driveway, my feeling of wealth renewed. The snow could come now and I would be ready, warm and happy burning my collection, already anticipating ways to collect more next year.
It’s been a year now since I had my wood stove installed. Because of the stove’s craving and my obsession, firewood has changed my life. I have met new neighbors, acquired a whole new social life and muscles I would have never expected, learned more about the woods and the machines that tame it, and gone into winter warm and snug in front of my little stove.
Thanks for reading this – I hope you enjoyed it! Cindy