Winter Goes About Its Business

I TAKE my mitten off to adjust my chain saw's carburetor. I do the job and get my mitten back on, because it's 20 degrees below zero. I put the saw down in the snow, move close to the fire, and get my fingers flexing and my mittens warmed up. Then I start my saw again and fall and limb dead trees from the cable machine up to the edge of the meadow, in two feet of snow.

Jim's in the timber, falling dead trees toward the machine and limbing them. Ed wades through the snow and sets chokers on the logs and clears to the side. Gary revs the engine and drags the logs to the machine. Some of the logs push snow ahead of them until they can't move anymore. Whoever's closest picks up a shovel and digs them out so we can drag them further.

When there are enough logs in the landing, I leave the falling to Jim and start cutting them into 18-inch lengths. We're hoping to load a trailer with four cords of wood so Ed and Christy and Gary can take it with them when we're through for the day. They'll sell the wood down the mountain in Baker.

Ed built his machine during the summer and fall. It drags logs in from as far as two hundred yards away. When I saw Ed during the summer, I told him, "I have more orders for firewood than I can fill. Come up and cut wood and sell it where you cut it, and you won't need a cable rig or even a trailer."

I maintain that our culture relies too heavily on a highly mechanized approach to work, and that we often miss the simpler ways to do the work. I also know that unwelcome advice never did change anybody's mind. Ed wanted to build the machine, so he kept at it, and I went back up the mountain and cut and sold firewood. Winter hit by the time he had it ready.

I had plenty of wood for the winter. My family could get through without money from winter woodcutting. So when Ed talked about bringing the machine up, I said, "It's crazy to cut firewood in the winter. Machines are harder to keep running. They break more easily."

"But wood's selling for $75 a cord in the valley now," he said. "That's more than twice what you were getting in the summer. It makes the extra work worth it."

It wasn't so much that he persuaded me as I couldn't pass up a possible adventure. I had to go out there to see what happened, and if I did go out there, the only way to keep warm was to work. If things did work out, it wouldn't hurt my family to have some income.

"Okay," I said. "I'll see if Jim can come back up, and we'll give it a try."

I broke up the ice at the ford in the river with the tractor and plowed the snow aside for a road across the meadow. When the road was ready, I called Ed, and he brought the machine up the next day.

By the time he got up the mountain and we got across the meadow, most of the day was gone. The only thing to do was to wait until the next day to start work. Jim stayed over that night.

It dropped to 25 below zero that night. When Ed and Christy and Gary showed up the next morning, the sun had been shining for an hour, and it had warmed up to 22 degrees below zero.

The cold caused us some problems getting across the river and the meadow, but we did get there. Jim started his saw and started falling and limbing trees. Christy started a fire to warm people, coffee, hot chocolate, and tools. The rest of us concentrated on getting the cable machine started.

It was after noon by the time we got the engines on the cable machine warmed up enough with a torch to start. We gathered around the fire and ate lunch.

Then we yarded logs. Ed said, "If the snow had a crust on it, the logs would come up on top. They wouldn't dig in like that."

I couldn't think of anything to say, except, "The snow doesn't have a crust on it, though."

The early darkness that comes to 45 degrees north descended when we had a scant cord and a half of wood cut and loaded on the trailer. Ed's parting comment was that we'd do better the next day.

On the way back across the meadow, Jim and I agreed that we had had some fun out there, and the experience would be one to remember. We'd give it another day or two.

At daylight the next morning, the thermometer on the front porch indicated 34 below zero. Ed and Christy showed up about noon, because they hadn't been able to get their pickup started.

Ed was more cheerful than he had been the previous day. He had a job lined up driving a delivery truck, south far enough that sub-zero days were unknown. "Winter always wins up here," he said. Winter doesn't fight anybody, I thought. It just exists. Nothing personal. No contest.

But I didn't speak my thoughts. Jim and I crossed the river and the meadow with them and helped them get the cable machine out.

It was dark by the time they headed down the mountain, soon to be on their way to warmer country and a reliable job. Jim and I played chess that evening, up close to the heater, with my daughters close to us, watching, eager to learn this fascinating game of kings and queens and, most exciting to them, knights on horses.

The next day, Jim headed home. I settled into my winter routine of writing, playing my guitar, keeping the house warm, skiing sometimes, and helping with the teaching in our school at home. Winter went on with its business of being winter.

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