Category Archives: firewood

Snow Logging

A few days ago I attended a funeral for a friend’s mother. It seems, in the last year or so, that death has declared open season on Baby Boomers and she was one of the many claimed by 2016.

On leaving the service I walked with an old friend from college days. We talked about our kids and I mentioned that my oldest was taking a gap year in Athens, establishing residency before enrolling in UGA, probably in the fall. I talked about how weird it was moving about that town after an absence of almost 25 years. A few things remained the same, recognizable relics, but much had changed and I had to acknowledge that much time had passed.

Lynda went to Auburn and said she hadn’t been back yet. “I really oughta go,” she said.

“It’ll force you to realize you’re not 25 anymore,” I said.

“But that’s how I feel,” she said. “Don’t you feel like you’re same as when you were in your 20’s?”

“Hell,” I said, “I still feel like I’m nine years old.”

Which leads me to today. Last night we had one of those rare Alabama occurrences, a snow storm. Really more of an icing, but nonetheless white stuff fell from the sky and stuck to the ground. Roads were, by Alabama standards, impassable and wiser folks stayed at home. Which meant I got an equally rare occurrence, a full Saturday at home without having to go in to work at the gym.

Nana found a new recipe for gluten-free biscuits (yes, we are those people) and had a batch coming out of the oven as I stumbled into the kitchen in search of morning coffee. I’m really enjoying the Yeti knockoff thermal mug I got for Christmas and, after a hearty breakfast of biscuits, bacon, and eggs, I set off, mug in hand, to follow Samantha and the girls as we walked the dogs through our new winter wonderland of a neighborhood.

 

img_20170111_172225

It doesn’t look so bad…

On the way back I suggested that we check out Boo Radley’s house, my pet name for the property adjacent to ours that hasn’t had a tenant in the eight years we’ve lived here, or quite possibly the ten before that. Boo Radley was the creepy guy in an old run down house in To Kill a Mockingbird. The house that sits on this property is falling in on itself. Luckily, the landowner, while she has the property listed for sale, has a woefully inflated sense of the property’s value. Priced out of anybody’s sense of reasonable coupled with an uninhabitable structure insures quiet neighbors and a strong sense of the rural quality of our neighborhood.

At one time this was property was something. An old house, dating back from the thirties when this was a mining community, covered in cedar shake. The house belonged to the company doctor. I’ve been told power lines that served the machine gun nests placed on the hill to keep out unionists originated in that house. You can see the remains of what must have been a beautiful garden, a Japanese style gate graces the driveway, a lap pool fringed in an overgrown bamboo forest sits in the back, only half full due to our recent drought and choked with leaves. I’m convinced there’s a prehistoric turtle that lives at the bottom of that murk.

I often fantasize about this property. It’s five acres running alongside and behind my own. Five additional acres I could use to keep small livestock, more raised garden beds, and a wood lot. Mmmm, wood lot. Here is where we get to the nine year old.

I grew up in a family that originated from the Presbyterians of Scotland. Ever heard of the Protestant Work Ethic? Yeah, we wrote that. As a boy all I ever wanted was to be included with the men as they went out to do chores on my grandfather’s farm. The often necessary exclusion, I would have quickly become bored and in the way, made that prospect even more attractive, to the point, that now as an adult I find ways to make work in my spare time. Nine years old, remember?

I have a fireplace insert in the living room and when the winters get cold enough I use it to help heat at least half of our house. The economics probably don’t play out. I spend much more in my own labor and effort to cut, split, stack, schlep, and burn than I get in gas savings, but I get something else, too. I get enjoyment. The boy inside of me gets to relish in the strength and power of the work and I feel a visceral connection to the men who labored before me. I get to play.

I can only imagine what those men might think of what I do. Life was very different for them. My father and uncle, my grandfathers, my great grandfathers all experienced this kind of work in a very real, this-is-what-we-have-to-do kind of way. Even for a portion of my father’s and uncle’s lives firewood was a necessity. It heated the house and, during my grandfather’s childhoods, it cooked their food. I do it because I think it’s fun.

I wanted to scout out Boo Radley’s place and see what kind of future uses I could put it to. You know, when the landlady suddenly takes an altruistic turn and cedes me the property or there’s a convergence of her suddenly realizing her property’s true value and I finding myself suddenly flush with excess cash. Both quite unlikely, but the idea of having a woodlot I could manage and steward strangely excites me and I wanted to see what could be.

In truth, not much. Like I said, this area was once part of the Overton Mines and in the 30s was almost completely clear cut. After the mine closed it turned over to small residential farms. Older residents have told me they used a path behind my house to get to the river and that there was a small spring up there where they kept minnows and other live bait. At one time the current owner of Boo Radley’s place had horses and that hill was their main pasture.

Now, it’s a lot of scrub and brush, bumble around long enough and you’ll find the old fence posts, the wire fencing long trampled or rusted away.. Privet and wisteria run rampant. Some of the wisteria is as thick as my forearm. The trees on this hill are young, mostly pines with a few hardwoods, saplings mainly, scattered in. There’s a couple of tall pines, wide enough I can’t reach my arms around and an oak that might be 50 years old.

I did find a old red oak down several years lying in the leaves, still solid enough to serve as some well seasoned firewood. Just enough to send the nine year old scheming for a new adventure.

Just before Christmas I acquired a ten foot choker cable with two solid metal rings one on each end. Given the ice and snow I thought conditions would be just right to section the trunk into logs I could drag back to the truck. First I’d have a cut a trail, but how much fun would that be? (No, really. That’s not sarcasm.) The afternoon temperature hung in the low 20s and the ice crunched noisily underfoot. When would I get another chance like this?

20170108_114849I loaded my tools into the truck and backed down Boo Radley’s overgrown driveway, past the Japanese gate and as far back as I could go. Which was actually not very far. My 1976 Chevy stepside, while certainly the coolest truck on the block, is not much of a four wheeler and I quickly lost traction. I shut the engine off and said a silent prayer asking that the weight of the wood I hoped to collect would be sufficient enough to aid in getting me back out again.

I picked up my ax and belted on my hatchet and trudged my way through the snow and ice frosted bamboo. About a 150 yards from the truck lay my quarry. I had to walk past the collapsing garage, corrugated sheets of tin perched atop a structure of tar coated 4x4s. Back in the summer my friend and mentor Chip Conrad and I used this spot to shoot a promo video for Adex leverage clubs. The suburban decay we joked about had accelerated a good bit since then. There’s hardly enough left to stand under let alone use as a set. It’s just a pile of scrap metal and trash wood bits, remnants of someone else’s life now moved on.

Beyond the garage lay a scattered assortment of junk, an old metal work table, something I would have grabbed a long time ago if two of its metal legs hadn’t already rusted halfway away, a folding chair, a motor with a giant gear on it whose original purpose I can’t begin to fathom, hundreds of plastic pots, the kind landscapers use. Past this graveyard of useless items, the ground begins to slope upward. There’s a break for the powerline and then the woods begin again.

I found my way to my tree and began clearing the wisteria and privet that had grown up around it. My studies of ax mechanics and lore had certainly paid off. The edge on my hatchet was keen and I quickly cut through the scrub brush and vines. I still think the handle is a little too thick, my hands burn with fatigue after a dozen or so swings.

The hatchet is a Snow and Nealy that Samantha bought me for Christmas a few years back. I’ve come to realize it’s a really nice tool, despite my gripes about it’s handle. I used it to clear the small stuff and make room for the axe to clear the larger privet trunks.

I’ve been restoring a few different axes in the garage, even toying with carving my own handles. I have a single bit that belonged to my father, and a couple double bits that I’ve picked up over the years. None of these are ready for the woods. The first double bit, the first handle I carved myself, is actually going under a refurbish. I carved the handle from a hickory branch (later learning that’s not the preferred method, although I’ve also read contrarian views on this, so I guess it’s still open to debate.) but carved it way too thick. I thought a beefy guy needed a beefy handle and I kinda got lazy after having removed so much of the original wood already. This’ll work, right?

I’m now going back, under the tutelage of Dudley Cook’s The Ax Book: The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter, and shaving it down to a more reasonable size.

The axe I do have that’s suitable for the woods is a hand forged German model I picked up from some catalog. At first I thought it was a dud, but after learning that most axes straight from the factory need their cheeks thinned (the area just behind the cutting edge on either side of the blade) to cut well. After a little time with a bastard file (and the belt sander, I really gotta work on this patience thing) I’ve got a really nice axe. It cut deep with each swing and I made short work out of clearing my trail.

A short hike back to the truck to gas and oil up my chainsaw and I was ready to start working on the log. I almost hated to crank up the chainsaw. Until now my work had been quiet and peaceful with nothing more to break the silence than the bite of my blade, the crunch of my boots, or the labor of my breathing. At one point a Carolina Wren, winter fat and puffed up against the cold, hopped in front of me, unperturbed by the swing of my ax or the shudder of the sapling sized privet I was cutting.

As nice as the relative silence was this log was close to sixteen inches in diameter and more than I wanted to tackle with a bow saw. I relish a good crosscut saw, but until I can get one, I’ll settle for my Stihl. I cut the log into sections, roughly eight feet long, and slipped the choker cable under the first log and the smaller ring through the larger. As I walked away from the log the cable cinched down and grabbed hold. It slid fairly easily across the ground.

Walking backwards and rowing the cable toward my chest I made my way down to the powerline, across the small drainage ditch, past the suburban decay, through the bamboo forest and to the truck. One down, three to go.

img_20170111_172052The second log was heavier. Of course it was. I was getting closer to the base. This log was wider and more of it solid wood than punky rot. This was a little rougher going until I figured out that if I faced forward and threw the cable over my shoulder I could make better progress. Holding the ring by itself was a bit of a problem, but I stopped again at suburban decay and rooting through the debris found a 1×2 I could fashion into a crude handle. That lasted about 20 yards before I snagged on some of the bamboo and snapped the handle trying to pull free. From there I just used my hatchet handle (and found myself suddenly grateful for the extra thickness), careful to keep the leather sheath on and the blade pointed away from me.

It was about 4:30 when I got the choker cable around the final log and I began summoning the strength to get this one moving. Only not so much. This was the butt end of the tree and not at all unheavy. At it’s current length it was not going to budge and my light was fading fast.

I could cut the log again, shorten it to, say, four feet and attempt to pull that out, but I knew if I did I would only get one log to the truck before it became too dark to work. Ice and snow in Alabama does not last long. If that melted before I retrieved the remainder of my log I could just hang it up. It would be too muddy or, even once dry, I’d lose the benefit of dragging over ice and snow.

 

img_20170111_171701

Hey Dave, I can see your house from here!

It was about that time I looked up and realized the fence to my lot was less than 15 yards away. I could just cut the log to stove length, toss the pieces over the fence and retrieve them tomorrow. Hell, from there I could just roll them down the hill. With a little luck I might even roll them into my splitting area, or at least close.

 

And for the first time all afternoon the adult me looked at the Nine Year Old me and said, “Really? We just spent four hours doing an hour and a half’s worth of work?”

 

img_20170111_171853And the Nine Year Old said, “Yeah, wasn’t it awesome!”

 

So I wrapped up. I quickly cut the log into 18 inch sections, tossed the remainder of my tree over the fence and hiked my gear back to the truck. I still had those other eight foot sections to get into the bed along with various other sizeable pieces I had found along the way.

I returned home feeling accomplished. The cold was never uncomfortable, just invigorating and somehow made the whole experience more fun. I went in, kissed my girls, and sat down to a well deserved supper. As I began to warm in front of the fire it all hit me and I found myself moving with the speed and grace of an 80 year old man.

Samantha and the girls laughed at me as I hobbled from the supper table to the big green chair in front of the fire. Halfway through our movie I had to move to another chair as that one was too soft and my stiffening muscles began to complain. There’s a reason Papa Bear favored the harder chair.

But even the stiffness couldn’t dampen my mood. As a gym owner I have seen, and even promoted myself, all manner of play based workouts. There’s a serious effort to get people moving and trying to get past the discomfort of exercise, the dreaded chore of the workout, seems to be the marketing ploy of the decade. Only work, hard work, physical work can be amazingly fun.

My dad hated the work he had to do for my grandfather. He became a computer programmer precisely so he could sit all day and not have to work hard. I’ve spoken to others with similar backgrounds who talk about how much they hated the labor that was thrust upon them.

I know I live in a bizarre and blessed time. A time when I can actively seek out the labor my ancestors worked tirelessly to ensure I didn’t have to do – and turn it into a game.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under firewood, self reliance, sustainability

Zen and the Art of Truck Maintenance

Man, I did a lot this weekend. That’s not really bragging either more just a statement of fact. As I look back from Monday morning, I’m actually kind of impressed with myself. Not in the, “Oh my god you’re awesome, Dave” kinda way, but more in the, “Hm, good job, Dave” kinda way. Personally, I think that’s a great way to roll into Monday morning.

Meet Monday with a list of accomplishments already under your belt and the week starts off with a momentum that just carries you along nicely. And if I decide sometime midweek that I need a bit of a break, well, I’ve earned it.

So what, you ask, did I do this weekend that explains this smug entry into the week? Like I said, a lot.

I finished up a little early at the gym on Saturday. My usual 11:30 massage appointment decided to go ahead and have her baby four weeks early (Congratulations, Nicole) and she and her tiny family are resting, happy and healthy, at home. Bronwyn finished her cleaning duties at the gym and we headed out for lunch.

After lunch I was planning on running the chainsaw and clearing a few trees I had marked in the Back Forty. Most of these are small oaks, less that a foot in diameter. I wanted to clear out the smaller ones which were crowding the two or three big ones. Those that are straight will be cut into 4 and 12 foot lengths to be used as borders for raised beds.

Unfortunately, I had not anticipated the rain. It settled in while we were eating and made it clear that it wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.

Steph had said earlier that she was planning on coming by to work in the garden and she pulled up shortly after we had gotten home. The back yard was swampy and wet and it was clear we wouldn’t be working in the garden. We resigned ourselves to looking through seed catalogs and planning our future on the calendar.

It’s here that I’ll throw out a plug for my new favorite site, http://weathertrends360.com. This site offers forecasts 360 days into the future with, according to Mental Floss magazine, a 76% accuracy. Your local weatherman averages around 70%. Armed with the weather predicting skills of Nostradamus we planned out the next few weekends.

Given that this weekend was our last frost and average lows would be in the mid 40s for the next few weeks, with a general warming trend, we decided next weekend we break ground. Steph’s husband Rob, of Pet Stop fame, has a giant tiller. I’m both excited and trepidatious.

The following weekend I’ll be tied up with school functions for both Bronwyn and Madeline. The weekend of the 10th we’ll bring in composted manure to feed the beds. The weekend of the 17th I’ll be in St. Petersburg, Florida for a workshop. By the 24th of March highs will be in the mid 60s and that seems like a good time to start planting. We’ve lots of volunteer tomatoes in the cold frames and I look forward to setting them out.

While planning we checked out an article from Mike at the Backyard Pioneer on hugelkultur. This is a German method of raised bed gardening that involves burying rotten wood under the raised bed. The wood serves as a moisture reservoir as it soaks up and holds moisture, and as it continues to rot it releases valuable nutrients into the soil. There is an abundance of rotting wood in the Back Forty and so we’ve resolved to try this method out with at least one bed.

The rain continued and our kids were busy entertaining themselves, a shopping trip seemed the only reasonable recourse. There is a Tractor Supply Company ten or fifteen miles from the house. I have been meaning to get out there for some time and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

If you don’t have one Tractor Supply Company is like the Walmart of Feed and Seed stores. Living in Birmingham, like I do, a Co-op or an Ag Supply Store is hard to come by. TSC, then, is like a candy store. There’s just so much cool stuff!

Saturday, I bought hoof trimming shears (so I could return the kitchen shears to a more sanitary use), jute twine, string (you can never have too much cordage), two watering wands (on sale for $2.99!), a grease pen for the chainsaw, a 40lb bag of lime and a 40lb bag of a mixed pasture seed. (I want to sow the slopes and non-garden areas with pasture seed to provide additional forage for the goats. The lime is just to ensure everything comes up nice and lush.)

Steph and her kids left around 3:30 or 4:00. The rain continued and it was clear I would not be running a chainsaw anytime soon. I decided to get a jump on my Sunday task of tuning up my truck. The idle had gotten rough lately and I had been tinkering on it all week. I replaced the air and fuel filters during the week and had turned up the idle, but decided a true tune up was in order. I had already bought new plugs, plug wires, distributor cap, and a rotor. After Steph left I set to clearing out a space in the garage I could pull the truck into and work. It was a tight fit. I had to fold the mirrors in to get through the door and there was just enough room for me to sidle out if I needed to.

It’s a good thing I don’t pay myself by the hour to do these kinds of tasks. As a mechanic I am s-l-o-w.

By 10 pm I had swapped out 4 plugs and wires. Most of this was due to inexperience and over caution.

I bought my first car in 1987, when I was 16. It was a 1979 Toyota Corolla. A friend of my mom’s, an early male role model, encouraged me to get a Haynes manual for the car and to learn to do much of my repairs myself. I changed my own oil and brakes, even swapped out the master cylinder, but that was the extent of it. As I got older my time became more valuable to me and I began to rely more and more on mechanics. Well, besides the time thing there was that whole bit about the engines getting much more complicated and seeking professional help just seemed safer.

This weekend I did more work on my truck than I’ve done on any vehicle since I was a teenager. I was a little giddy and nervous at first. At some point I was reminded of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It probably came about as I was reminding my self not to hurry. I frequently find myself hurrying. It seems like I was trying to finish a task, to beat some external clock. There’s a client who will be here in fifteen minutes, three more tasks that need attending to or I’m about to run out of daylight. There’s more work than the time I have allotted and I need to get done.

But you can’t rush certain tasks and changing out the plugs on a 26 year old truck is one of them. I removed and replaced each plug, painfully aware of how disastrous a broken or cross threaded plug would be. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance embodies this no rush approach elegantly. The writing is unhurried and moves at just the pace it needs in order to say what it has to say. It truly is zen. I still have to work at it and that is not so zen. As I worked I took breaks often to survey what I had just done and to assess what and how I was going to do whatever came next. The process was, depsite my anxiety, enjoyable.

By 10 pm I was grateful I had decided to get a jump on things and still had all day Sunday to finish. Samantha and I slept late and I did a little online research while she made breakfast. Confident I was on the right track, I took my coffee and returned to the garage. I began by focusing on the distributor cap and replacing the rotor. In replacing the cap I saw that the ignition coil, which is housed in the cap, was arcing and that the insulation had burned through on one of the wires. I called O’Reilly Auto Parts and made sure they had one. Thirty minutes later I was back in the garage and installing it.

By 3 o’clock Sunday afternoon I was finished and had buttoned everything back up. With not a little trepidation I turned the key in the ignition and Barry fired right up (you know I named my truck Barry White, right?). I took it out for a quick test drive and to bask in my success.

Back at the house I took advantage of the remaining daylight. The goats have been climbing up into their feeder and pooping all over their hay. I ripped some three inch rails and installed them on the long sides to discourage this behavior. We’ll see how well it works.

I then took out the chainsaw (finally!) and tackled one of the trees I’d marked. After felling it I got two 12 foot sections and two 4 foot sections for bed borders. The rest I cut into 16 inch sticks for firewood.

By then the sun was setting and it was time to put my tools away. I came in, showered, cooked flank steaks with sautéed spinach and sautéed mushrooms in butter. After dinner Samantha and I watched a bit of TV together.

Not bad for a weekend. One day, everyday could be like this.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under firewood, goats, organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening

Warm and Toasty

Last Friday marked the first fire of the season. We might have pushed it a bit but there was enough of a chill in the air that at the time it felt justified.

Two winters ago I bought a used woodstove and had it installed in the chimney of the main family room. It came equipped with a blower and for the past two years has effectively replaced one of our two furnaces during the winter. In the next year or two I’d like to install a second stove in the other half of the house. I love everything about heating the house with wood.

Here in Alabama firewood is pretty easy to come by. I haven’t paid for firewood in three winters. Everyone knows me as the “firewood guy” and for two seasons I even sold firewood.

They say that the great thing about firewood is that it warms you twice, once in the cutting and then in the burning. I find the whole experience of firewood to be immensely rewarding.

I started three years ago when a friend of Nana’s had an ancient oak fall on her property. There was no real damage and as such no insurance money to remove the tree. I would go out and whittle on this giant oak on the weekends and take home manageable rounds to split and stack for firewood.

This tree was easily 300 years old and took me several months to cut and clear. I sold nine full cords and kept two or three for myself.

Which brings me to an aside and a peeve.

A cord of firewood is a stack four feet by eight feet by four feet. What’s sold today by most sellers if you order a cord is technically a “face cord,” which is a stack four by eight feet by whatever the length your firewood is. In most cases this is really a half cord at best, providing that you buy two foot sticks of firewood. Your average seller takes full advantage of the fact that you don’t really know what a cord is.

My other peeve is that most sellers sell “green” wood. There’s a guy who has a set up on my way to and from work. I’ve watched his operation over the years. In fact his was the last load of firewood I bought.

He has an arrangement with a tree service that come October will start delivering the trunks of trees they’ve cut down. This is advantageous for the tree surgeons as they otherwise have to pay to dispose of the trees. This firewood seller then spends his weekends busting the trunks down into firewood for immediate sale. These trees are days from being alive and sold like this will not make satisfactory firewood.

As a consumer of firewood I recommend you buy next year’s firewood this year or better yet cut it and stack it yourself.

Green wood will burn, but you will be frustrated by it. Green wood is slow to light, is very smoky and requires a hotter fire to keep burning. In addition to this, the smoke contains a higher concentration of creosote which lines your flue and increases your chances of chimney fires. I have burned green wood in my stove before but found it a much more “high maintenance” endeavor. Seasoned wood is best.

I try and cut firewood during the spring and summer months. An Alabama summer is plenty hot enough to dry out split firewood in a month or two. Wood I cut in July is sufficiently dry to burn in November.

Many folks will try and tell you it has to sit for a year, but that has not been my experience here. I split my wood while it is green and stack it for maximal airflow. Sometimes, like this year, I’ll even cut and set aside wood in October as a back up for the end of the season, just in case I run out early or cold weather extends further into March.

At present I load my firebox three or four times a day. In the morning, as I’m the first to rise, I open up the air vents and fill the firebox. Last night’s coals quickly catch and I run the box at full blast to get the house good and warm for everyone else. When Samantha leaves for school she makes sure the box is full again and closes the air vents to minimal airflow. This keeps the fire going and the box hot enough to keep the thermostat driven fan going. That evening we reload the box and if it’s cooler open up the vents. The final load is right before bed and the vents are closed again to keep the fire burning slowly through the night. Our thermostat on the gas furnace on that side of the house stays set somewhere in the high sixties during the winter and it rarely ever kicks on.

Few things are more satisfying than the feel of warmth that hits you when you enter our house on a cold winter’s day or sight of smoke drifting from the chimney. It warms the house and my soul.

3 Comments

Filed under firewood, self reliance, sustainability