The other morning a thin coat of ice covered the porches and car windshields, a light dusting of snow melted on the ground but remained for most of the day throughout the woods on the top layer of last autumn's dried, curled leaves only because they are exposed to a layer of cool air between their underside and the slightly warmer earth.
A few surprisingly fat bluebirds landed on the mulberry out front of the kitchen window as if to say how 'bout it? They are regulars in these parts but this is the first I have seen them this year. A very cold morning and having been well-treated here in years past, they were looking for a handout.
After stoking the woodstove, I went next door where the ladies were sharing an early breakfast, getting ready to head off to work. We have no bird seed, they say, but there is some old bread and tortillas that I could throw to them. I break it up and spread it on the narrow strip of concrete leading from our front porch to the parking lot. Cracked and lifted by the roots of a nearby hybrid poplar, this twenty foot walkway was one of the only places our kids could use chalk when they were younger. Now, all of a sudden, those days are long gone and I am feeding birds instead of children.
Around noon, an old friend stops by, dropping off a loaf of day-old sourdough from a Nashville bakery, a copy of the Drive By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera for me to sample, a package of lemon cookies and reminding me that I need to order more Tibetan incense, which he has been buying from me for the last 15 years. Before he left, my daughters (ages 27 and 15) passed through to say goodbye and grab a road atlas, en route to Kentucky to see some friends. As the weather is less than ideal, I tell them to bring blankets and wear long-johns. The elder says good idea while the younger rolls her eyes.
Cold weather means burning more wood; the pile on the porch is almost gone. After shaking down the ashes, I wheelbarrow the ashpan to the far side of the parking lot and dump it on the compost. Nearby is the woodpile. Most of what we burn is slab, the rounded outer layers and bark from logs rough cut into squared timbers at the local Amish mill. This is usually a mixture of green and seasoned, hard and softwoods cut into stove length sections. If the price is right, we may also buy a small amount of hardwood rounds for the coldest weather. So far, we have spent less than $100 on firewood this year.
If you have to split your own wood, some things quickly become obvious. For one, no matter how macho you are, you simply cannot split rounds from a gum tree. Gum barely accepts the imprint made by the edge of an axe blade before bouncing it back at you without initiating even a hair-line crack in the grain. Further experience reveals the difficulty of splitting significant knots or branch junctures. In many cases, this is not altogether impossible, but invariably requires more energy.
Come mid-February, depending on the groundhog, the ratio of remaining slab to rounds becomes a concern. Looking around the pile my eyes are drawn to one big knotty piece that will never fit in the stove as it is, but would provide a bed of live coals for six or eight hours when split. Checking closer, marks indicate that it has previously been tested by my axe. Perhaps it was still green and tough at the time and will now yield easier. No such luck. I shift plans and instead of attacking the center, decide to work the edges. After a few well-placed strokes, the chunk is just narrow enough to slip through the mouth of the stove.
A few wheelbarrows worth are rolled to the porch, I replace the ashpan, shut down the stove and tailed by both dogs, set out on a path along the creek to ask if my neighbor has any bird seed. Past the old sweat lodge site, across a footbridge, up a mossy bank and in the back door. Warmth, the smell of food, bright with electricity and people noise. Four friends sit around the kitchen table, four kids watch a show on Alaska. Mary offers tea. Silas points out a half-bucket of bird seed on a nearby porch. The television narrator compares the changeability of a certain Alaskan river to a woman's moods. I would never get away with saying anything like that, but Dave explains that this guy is alone in the wilderness or he might not either and everyone laughs.
We share breaking news. The youngest son of our local mechanic was in a bad car accident and will need every bone in his face reconstructed but he will live. A small trailer has recently been moved out into Skymetal field to accommodate the rowdy nephew of the man who used to own all this land, although no one is living in it presently. Patty and her son Jeff both have their homes out on the edge of Skymetal, an open stretch of grassy ridgetops hosting a few ponds defining the high ground to the east. To discourage further development, Patty will not grant access to her electricity. I thank Jeff for putting up a no hunting sign accompanied by a prayer flag on Easter Ridge. And everyone concurs; it is a good place to watch the sun rise and set and we should probably build a small platform for sitting out there. Anticipating the coming spring, Jeff said he was surprised the other morning when he saw what appeared to be a bush in full bloom which quickly transformed into a family of goldfinches huddling in the early light. The circle soon broke as darkness fell and we wished each other a pleasant evening before I followed the dogs home, lugging a bucket of seed.