A C-C-C-old Day For Cutting

OLD Saw says if you cut your own firewood, it'll warm ye twice. And it is well known that two choppers, working together, can ``put up'' more firewood than three men working alone. Thus it was one winter that my neighbor Merle and I came to understand that cutting wood may not warm ye at all.

Cold weather in Maine, more often than not, is likely to be a literary conceit founded on imaginary facts by gentle folk who have nothing better to do, and frequent repetition gives an illusion of truth. Everybody has heard of the cold morning when the teakettle was boiling brisk on the top of the red-hot cookstove, and the water froze solid. Things like that.

Remember that night when the mercury in the thermometer went clear to the bottom and two feet down a hoe handle? But there really was a day when it was too cold to get warm cutting firewood.

Merle lived neighbor to us at the time, and our farms were about alike - house by the road, then the fields, then the pasture, and the wood lot on the far end. The distance from the road to the stumpage was not quite a mile. So Merle suggested we `change work, and after the first good snowstorm he came on a Saturday morning and we went up in my woods with our lunches and set to work. The next Saturday I went up to Merle's place. By February we had as much put up for Merle as we did for me.

This was well back before the chainsaw appeared, and we were using a six-foot, two-man crosscut saw. One on each end. We'd drop a tree, limb it out, cut it to four-foot lengths, and then split it into lift-size. On a bright winter day, not too cool, we'd soon be in our undershirts, comfortable so long as we kept yanking the saw. We'd put our mackinaws back on for lunchtime, and again in the afternoon when the sun went behind the trees. We'd rest now and then, taking a drink at the spring and usually having an apple apiece - we'd start out with a pocket full of apples.

Actually, I always liked putting up firewood. Maple and beech saw readily if you keep the teeth honed, and when the wood is full of frost, a four-foot cut sometimes splits the whole length with one clip of the ax. Then, too, it's fun to contemplate those cozy winter evenings when the fireplace is revved up, or those hot suppers with a pot of baked beans and a parcel of Mom's buttermilk biscuits.

So there came this Saturday along in February, and the thermometer was well down the hoe handle. I bundled up, took my pail of lunch, stuffed some russets in my mackinaw pocket, and went up to Merle's. I found him sitting in his kitchen, quite unready.

``Didn't think you'd come,'' he said. ``How cold was it down your way?''

So I waited while he got on his larrigans and Mrs. Merle put up his lunch, and we went to the woods. Now, take my word for it, that was sure some old cold morning! Did you ever hear a tree snap with the frost? They do it. It must be really cold, and it was. The sap in the wood lets go all at once, and there's a jerooshly wallop that beats thunder and lightning. Only thing I know of like it is when pond or river ice booms. I don't really know if a frost snap in a standing tree does any damage - I never saw any physical evidence as we'd split out the wood. But a tree snap does sound like the trump of doom, only more so, and it certainly makes a noise as if something went to splinters and smithereens.

That morning, as Merle and I began to fiddle with the saw, it was like standing between two artillery brigades that were mad at each other. Merle and I waited to let the other one make the first proposal. We hadn't shed our mackinaws and weren't about to. When Merle fished an apple from his pocket, he decided he'd had enough.

``Lookit that!'' he said. ``Froze solid!'' Then he said, ``You can stay here if you want to, but I think we'd be smart to go back to the house and exercise the cribbage board.''

I said, ``Merle, that's a s-s-s-sound p-p-p-plan!'' And that's what we did. That hike back to Merle's kitchen was the coldest thing I ever did, and we arrived just as Mrs. Merle was fitting five loaves of bread into the cookstove oven. Then she put water in the pot of beans. A cozy outcome. That's one thing to do when you can't get warm cutting firewood.

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