Friday, November 22, 2013

Passing Down the Saw

Firewood season is the season of chainsaws and trips up and down our ankle-grabber basement stairs to feed the furnace. The wood burning furnace is by far the most self sufficient thing about our farm. Yes we have a garden with fresh veggies, and chickens who lay eggs, and at times the freezer is full of chickens and turkeys and frozen dairy products. But if the chickens stop laying or we need a pound of butter I can always run up to the store to buy more.

But our heat in the winter is another story. Kroger doesn't sell heat. And even if I bought a bunch of logs somewhere, no one is going to trek it down the basement stairs and light the match, and the newspaper and the kindling for me. And if the fire doesn't start, I have to try again until it does, or Oliver and I are going to spend a rather chilly day bundled up in our hat and fingerless gloves while I type on the computer.

I like the wood burning furnace, I love the smell of the cracking wood in the morning as I brew my pot of coffee. I love the downdraft that occasionally brings that rustic smell of smoke through our leaky windows in our bedroom. I love how it heats the walls and the floors and the furniture differently than a blast air furnace.

The collection of firewood is a harvest like any other. A gathering of sustainability and life. I view the piles of logs and timber as I would a bushel basket of heirloom tomatoes. Only instead of tomato sauce, and salsa and nourishment, it is warmth and heat and comfort to the soul. As the howling winds whirl against the house in the Michigan winter, it is as sweet to hear the furnace come on as it would be to open a jar of raspberry jam and relive the fruit of summer.

The wood burning furnace also brings a certian element of responsibility and routine. I find it ironic that I've programmed my electronic phone to remind me to feed the furnace every few hours. Just as I write this blog on a computer, one more way that technology is helping us get back to basics. A paradox for sure, but one that I'm grateful for.

Timber is in my blood. Lumber, firewood, the felling of trees, it's a part of me. My grandfather Henry Lompra was a lumberjack in the Upper Peninsula, just north of Escanaba. He was born in 1901 in Canada and spoke only French, but was half Chippewa Indian. He lived in a shack with his brothers and sisters. There was no electricity or running water and they would pass down boots and coats from brother to brother until the souls wore out and the coats could no longer be patched. Often, there was little to eat but crocks of baked beans made with salt pork and molasses and lard sandwiches. When things were good, his mother (my great grandmother) would make things like pickled pigs feet, head cheese, pasties and French meat pie. Some of these recipes are still in my family to this day, in fact, we eat meat pie every Christmas Eve after Mass. There are many fascinating things about my grandfather, he played the violin (which is who I presumably get it from) and had a gift for telling wonderful stories which over the years my mother has passed down to me. Some of my favorites are of the winters that he and my family endured up there in the northern wilderness.

There is one story that will always stick out in my memory. My grandpa and his brother were coming home from the lumber site. It was a night where the woods were so dense and thick with blackness that he and my great Uncle Fred had to rely only on the horses ability to see and follow the path that led them home. They were a few miles from the cabin when they heard wolves howling all around them. Closer and closer the howls came. The horses twitched and spooked, but my grandpa steadied them and clicked to get them going faster. Suddenly the howls became yelps as the wolves had organized the pack and were now hunting the horses and the wagon. My grandpa snapped the reigned and the horses took off in an all out gallop. The wolves had surrounded them and were running with the horses snapping at their feet. One wolf jumped the wagon and my uncle Fred kicked it in the shoulder to get if off of them. The horses ran and ran frothing in the cold and the wagon bounced and jarred over the path as they beat the starving wolves home. My grandpa ran the horses hard and straight into the barn and shut the doors behind them. They were forced to sleep in the hay loft that cold winter night with the hungry wolves pawing and scratching at the barn doors.

Zach and I have his two-man saw hanging in our barn.

Fast forward 80 years, after the glory days of Detroit, after the riots and after suburban sprawl moved my parents from a tiny brick bungalow on the west side of Motown to the rural wooded property of my youth.

My family cleared the wooded land for the builders to break ground for our home, with a strong devotion to keep as many trees standing as possible. (Which is why I could never grow a garden...too much shade). But the cracking of a tree as the wood starts to give way, a sad sort of sound, that snap that stops your heart like a bolt of lightening and then falls like a clap of thunder is one that is both nostalgic and respectful in my memory. I spent many days exploring the fallen trees, criss-crossed all over what would be our front yard. Balancing on the tree trunks, plucking acorns from branches that had once been 100 feet in the air. They were my fort, my wonderland.

Because I grew up in the woods, gathering fire wood was always a part of my childhood. My dad, the dog and I would hike through the woods in the fall and collect large pieces of fallen limbs for cozy fires throughout the winter. There always seemed to be a fallen tree each year that some summer thunderstorm would bring down. The smell of green wood, chainsaw exhaust and the bon fire to burn the smaller messy branches would mingle with the sweet smell of my dad's pipe which he occasionally smoked on weekends. I would collect the logs as my dad cut them into manageable pieces and stack them between two large oak trees.

I learned to split wood at a young age, though I'm still no expert. I learned to use a wedge and a sledge for large pieces that I wasn't strong enough to blast through with sheer might. I also have a large scar to this day on my left index knuckle where the axe kicked back and smashed my finger. I think I was about 14.

It was always my job to collect fire wood for evening fires. We had a large black sled and I would bundle up in a hideous snowmobile suit from the seventies. It was black and brown and cream with angular stripes, and a zipper that was about a 1/2 inch wide with some serious metal teeth. But it was the warmest and most convenient thing to slip into. I would make my way through the snow with nothing but the sound of the dog galloping through the drifts (the way dogs do) and my boots crunching in the dark silence. The fog of each exhale echoed in my head the way wearing a winter hat sometimes makes you aware of your breathing. I'd fill the sled and haul it back up to the house. It was a good chore.

Now that we live on the farm, the firewood isn't as plentiful but we get by. Last spring we lost a large Maple tree in an ice storm. The gathering is still the same. The same smells and memories, only Zach wields the saw now and the dog is a different dog but just as loved. And the seasons of life are cyclical. Not just firewood season, or apple season, or fall, winter, summer...but the years that repeat themselves. The generations. Our roles that trade, and fade, and give-way to new relationships, but somehow reacquaint themselves with the oldest of human instinct. The instinct to keep warm and make it through another winter.  The equation of a log melting into ashes and heat bursting forth in that exchange is something I never want to take for granted. Somehow the tangible act of stocking a fire, one of the most basic of human acts, something that until a very short while ago was a large part of human daily routine, exists as fuel for the soul and warmth of the spirit. The continuance of that routine is one that I gladly do each winter. It is my heritage, my family and most of all, my humanity.


Michelle Langefeld said...

what a wonderful piece...

Katie/Maple Grove said...

Jennifer, you write so beautifully. I felt like I was there in the scenes as I read. Thank you for sharing some of your heritage with us. ~Katie

Post a Comment

Post a Comment