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Original Issue


Every spring I begin cutting my firewood for the upcoming winter. It should be cut months ahead of time so it will dry and cure. Last year I didn't get started until June, almost too late to be cutting the wood, but during the early spring I'd been working with my bees from sunup until sundown, and I hadn't had time to do any cutting.

When I finally got around to it, the weather had turned hot. It was stifling at midday in the Missouri woods, so I'd go out at sunrise and cut wood for a few hours. Then I'd load it into my pickup and bring it back to the house.

I liked being out in the woods early. Every strand of every spider's web was lined with dewdrops. The woodlot smelled of leaf mold and damp soil. My dogs liked being out there, too. Once they sniffed excitedly in a hollow at the base of a tree. The beagle shrieked into it, his bay comically muffled by the cavity in the tree. A squirrel escaped their notice and sat on a low tree eyeing them suspiciously, tail twitching. Red-eyed vireos warbled their song high in the treetops, where I couldn't see them.

Their song always ends when I start up the chain saw. It makes a terrible racket, but I'm fond of my saw. It's one of the first tools that I learned to master. It's important to me, too. It gets cold here in the Ozarks in the winter. There are often warm winter days, but there are also weeks when the temperature never climbs above freezing. My wood stove is the only source of heat for my cabin, and if I don't have firewood to burn in it, the dogs and the cats, the houseplants, the water in my pipes and I will all freeze. It's wonderfully simple. Cut wood or die.

When the man in my life moved out, he left his chain saw behind, but it was a heavy, vibrating, ill-tempered thing. I weigh 105 pounds, and although I could lift it, once I had it running, it shook my hands so much that it became dangerous to use. The first year, I hired a man to cut my wood, but I wasn't pleased with the job he did. The next year, I needed money badly and wrote articles for a women's magazine, articles that embarrassed me when I saw them in print below my name. Shame finally won out over cupidity and I quit, but as a reward and celebration I took some of the money I'd earned and bought the finest, lightest chain saw I could find.

All chain saws are formidable and dangerous. A neighbor who earns his living in timber was cutting wood overhead when a branch snapped the saw back toward him. He switched off the engine, but the chain's continuing momentum carried the blade forward. It stopped after it had cut through the bill of his cap. When I told him I had bought my own chain saw, he advised me, "The time to worry about a chain saw is when you stop being afraid of it."

So I'm careful with my saw. I spend a lot of time sizing up a tree before I fell it. Once it's down, I clear away the brush around the tree before I start cutting it into lengths so I won't trip and lose my balance with the chain saw running. And I simply let the widow-makers go, those trees that after being cut snag in another tree as they fall, because they require fancy cuts that are beyond my skill. A dull chain and a poorly running saw are dangerous, so I've learned to keep mine in good shape, and I sharpen the chain each time I use it. My chain saw is a tool that does what I want it to do, and woodcutting is a job in which I take pleasure.

There's something heady about becoming part of the forest process. It sounds simple enough to say that by cutting firewood I cull and thin my woods. But then that puts me in the business of deciding which trees should be encouraged and which should be taken.

I like my great tall black walnut tree, so I've cut the trees around it to give it the space and light it needs to thrive. Dogwoods don't care. They grow extravagantly in close company. If I clear a patch, within a year or two pine seedlings will move in. If I don't cut a diseased tree, its neighbors may sicken and die. The sap gone, a standing tree will make good firewood if I cut it, but if left it will make a home for woodpeckers and, later, for flying squirrels and screech owls. Where I leave a brush pile of top branches, rabbits make a home. If I leave a fallen tree, others benefit. Ants, spiders, beetles, wood roaches will use it for shelter and food; and lovely, delicate fungi will grow out of the tree before, mixed with leaf mold, it becomes part of a new layer of soil.

This year I will get to the woodcutting earlier. I have already been walking the woods, marking the trees I am going to take. Warblers are migrating; they remind me of the birds that will be in the treetops by summer, and I have promised myself that I'll cut wood before the red-eyed vireo sings.