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Chopping away with fiery ambition

By John Gould / July 25, 1980



On the old farm, the year's most important day was the one when the last stick of next winter's firewood went under cover. The year stemmed from and flowed toward that day, and a feeling of security and prosperity settled on the homestead. When we sold our farm and retired to tidewater indolence, I found the only thing I truly missed in the exchange was my wood lot. We have everything here that we had there, so to speak, except the back acres, and no more did I pack a basket of lunch on a crisp winter morning and hie to the woods with ax and saw. Firewood, indeed, wasn't all that important in our new program until the energy cry, and after that I did look around to see if I might pick up an acre or two of trees near enough to exploit. Then I had a better idea, and I asked my friends upstate if they would oblige me in this respect.

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True friends always oblige, and accordingly on a certain day of last January a prominent vehicle about twice the size of the Merchandise Mart braked into my dooryard with a fine hissing of air, and a young man worked a mechanical unloader until nine cords of beech and maple were mine. In eight-foot lengths, tree diameter. Trees grow big on Bray Hill, and my friends had selected the finest kind, seein's 'twas me. This made our little house look surrounded, as the pulpwood pile identifies the mill that makes all the paper for the Yellow Pages. But I had my wood, and could work toward that day when the last stick of it would go under cover.

Everybody who came by could see that I had something special. Tidewater woods run to spruce, and huge butts of sugar maples are not often harvested alongshore. My friends had sent me the kind of fuel I used to cut myself back on The Ridge, and I tackled it with respect.

Nine cords are a generous pile, and Easter came and went. There was a Down-Maine opinion that next winter's wood bore a variable relationship to Easter. Some say this had to do with the snow, when wood was yarded by sled. If Spring came and the ground was bare, any wood still unhauled would have to wait for mud season to wane, and then it was time to plow, and so on, and the rhythm of the wood supply was lost. But Easter comes both early and late, and some said this meant you should have the splitting done, more or less. And then there were smarties who always had all the wood under cover and tiered, sometimes even by Good Friday.

I was not really shooting at Easter, but I did announce that I was maybe half done. I decided to change the tradition and embrace Memorial Day, which now is also variable. I made it, and my pile was all split and ready to house when June burst upon us with ice in the bird bath. "Don't pile that green wood against what's left from last year!" she cautioned, and we went pretty much up to July with evening blazes on the cheery hearth. Then I carried quite a bit of last year's dry wood outside for this summer's discontent, filled the shed with my new supply, and found a tarpaulin for the meantime, recalling my grandfather's way of bragging about how much hay he cut: "I stack all I can outdoors [he'd say], and then put the rest in the barn." My woodshed here is not farm size, and most of my nine cords was still in the weather.

I rearranged the composition of the garage, and got about a cord along one wall, leaving holes in the tier so I can reach through to the light switches. I got quite a snatch packed in under the stairway. "I think," I said, "that I can get what's left into the boathouse."

So my canoe is hoist by warp and shiv to dangle at the rafters, and Lalage, my skiff, is pushed sideways against a wall. Indignity plus for two beautiful craft to be treated thus in their own home! But the day came, and I said, "There!" The last stick was in, and I raked the dooryard of chips, boxing them for kindlings. My wife said, "Remember that man who built a house and got all his furniture with soap coupons? They lived in one room and the other seven were full of soap."

"Eyah," I said.