Life in the forest is full of cycles, including the burning and replenishing of the woodpile. Photo courtesy Mary Odden.
I think I may be some kind of wood-boring beetle dreaming that I am a human, or perhaps a magician, turning these rounds of white spruce and paper birch into sawdust and sticks, then into smoke. In fact, I may be a fire—a small, contained, and cheery fire—dreaming that I am a human.
My face is only inches from the wood. My right hand runs the hydraulic lever. My left hand pries and catches and stays out of the way of the relentless steel wedge as it presses into the end grain of each round. I want to be provident like the grasshopper and fill the woodshed with split wood for next winter, though as a citizen of this new century I have to consider that I may be more like the ant, the big black one that turns heartwood into Dr. Seuss honeycomb cities. I may be a carpenter ant dreaming that she is a human.
A 19-inch round of green birch can weigh 70 pounds. We mix the species as their chunks go into the shed, splitting a wheelbarrow of birch rounds and then a wheelbarrow of dry spruce—the spruce so much lighter than the birch that it is like tossing air.
Our Swedish friend Mike takes his older Swedish friend Leo around to show him our outbuildings. They stop in front of the woodshed, a two-story affair with a bunkhouse on top and two open bays beneath to hold a year’s supply of heater and cook stove wood. On this day in late spring, we have finished several weeks of falling, hauling, bucking to length, and splitting. The heater side is solid with ranks of split wood.
“Look at that,” Mike says to Leo as they gaze at our riches, “you don’t see that so much.” We overhear and grin at each other. These men came from spruce and birch old country to live in spruce and birch new country. They have worked with their hands and backs from the earliest light to the latest light, winter and summer. Ranks of split wood say more to them, about us, than any other evidence of our industry.
Mike and my husband, Jim, raised the walls of our log shop, its completion aided by so many others. Mike helped me plan the corn-crib-like air flow of our woodshed. In the 40 years I have spent with my husband, our buildings and we ourselves continue to be raised with the help of generous friends, the labor of their hands and their shared wisdom.
Cold toes used to drive us out to cut firewood. In those days, we joked about looking hard at the furniture, some of which was just firewood carved or sawed into seats and tables. After we built our first woodshed, though, we learned to keep it full and to depend upon its promised comfort.
My part in the full woodshed is the operation of Saint Woodsplitter, a gasoline-powered steel wedge driven by a 5 hp Honda engine at an advertised—right there on side of the ram—27 tons of pressure. Donning hearing protection against the Saint’s slight roar and rattle, I muscle a birch round onto the splitter and put a steady pull on the control arm, bringing the wedge into the wood. After an interval featuring horror movie sound effects of creaking door, the log will open with a satisfying “pop.” The fat sour scent of wet birch bark will rise as I swing half the round behind me on my hip, into the wheelbarrow to wait while I divide its mate into heater-sized wedges. All will be stacked into the blond mosaic face of a woodpile loved by Swedish friends and by us.
The Circle of Life
When we came here, I knew we would be good for this place. Beauty, my former idea of beauty absorbed from every Better Homes and Gardens to the back-to-the-land dreams of New Shelter and Mother Earth News, was an energy driving our labors, each vision entwined with human benefit. I always intended to take out underbrush and all the dead and dying trees in a wide circumference, leaving only straight boles of white spruce, limbed up and beautifully spaced, an airy chapel of light to fringe my expansive garden.
Well, I am older. The garden does not need so much space for its cabbages and potatoes. If I back away from my own picture to hover, even within the 500 feet between forest floor and sky that a drone may navigate without a permit, I can see that to live in a healthy forest is to live in pathology. To a scientist or a wood-cutter, this is not news. The earth needs the trees’ decay, the red rot with its scintillating sparks of white, the beetle-hit trunks bleeding sap, the holey condominiums engineered by woodpeckers and flickers, each crack and broken canker a sheltering cave for a chickadee. The forest falls down dead around itself, the species succeed one another, and lightning fire licks up the ladder of dead branches to renew it all—every 30 or 100 or 200 years depending on which Alaskan forest you inhabit. Piece by piece over years or all at once, the whole thing is brought down to ash. Shyly at first, willow and fireweed and berries creep back in. Cycle upon cycle.
But also, the earth is warming and fire cycles are shortening. Bugs and funguses take a bigger toll. Spruce trees are fleeing at tree-speed, slowly dying here in the eastern interior and spreading to the west and up the slopes of Alaskan mountains into tundra lands wetter and cooler. Woody plants are spreading north to soils that deepen and dry as permafrost drops down. This migration has long been visible to science and to village storytellers, but news spreads slowly to the rest of us. It’s funny isn’t it, that adventurers following trappers and miners west and north are not the only ones, that adventurers are not the only humans and humans are not the only ones heading west?
In European folklore, west is the point of vanishing, the sunset a euphemism for dying. Ships sailed west and never came back. The ocean is flashing with alarms and hungry swimmers now. But the trees swim too, slowly chasing their own difficult survival.
Alaska is a place where frontier antecedents are still important, albeit alongside a rising consciousness of change and deeper indigenous history. One Man’s Wilderness is still calling us, Richard Proenneke still carving the wooden hinges for his beautiful Dutch door. His story has been a Little House in the Big Woods for people who bumped into the western coast of America and turned north. But settling with its inevitable taming has lost ground to an uglier concern with surviving. And whether we come here to settle or whether we search the aisles in Walmart for canned dried vegetables that will last 100 years, it is still so hard to acknowledge that the land was never empty or without motion, or that its beauty can be separate from us, or that we can harm it forever.
Morrie Secondchief, an Ahtna neighbor when we first came to this place, told us the old people she knew when she was a child told her that the old people they knew when they were children said this Nelchina country had been covered with big spruce. Those old people said a fire took it all and something changed so those big trees could never come back.
Maybe it was the weather, or more fires because of the weather. According to forest scientists, fire occurrences and temperatures rose more in the twentieth century than in any other time in the 450-year human record, and the trend continues. There are fire scars all over these woods. You can’t walk a hundred feet without kicking a twisted old grey trunk, streaked with black.
Sans science and stories, human memories are short. Our neighborhood is sometimes called the “land of little sticks,” a characterization earned by wet prairies of tiny black spruce riding on permafrost, roots as shallow as Christmas tree stands. But when I dig down more than a foot and a half in the soil under my garden, there are blackened trunks lying across each other, some of them nearly two feet thick.
Still, I plant my seeds in the garden I see, the one I have this year. The robins’ voices are loud and sweet on this May morning, the willow buds loaded with sugar and perfume.
For many years now, we’ve looked at land through our plans for it, each tree and grassy margin overlaid with dreams. A south aspect for a garden here, a view of the lake for the window there, well-drained soil for a foundation. Slowly, the desires of the land itself have come through a little more clearly, dug out from under the burden of our expectations. I am more likely now, as my life proves to be finite, to see our labors as an interruption of nature instead of its fulfillment. But also to love it more, what we will leave ere long.
Now we know the woods can leave us too. In this last best place of ours, we are a winter habitat for moose who fear our clumsy selves in the deep spring snow less than they do wolves. An entire economy of voles and birds and hares and ravens and hawks has grown up around our birdfeeders and potato patch. We still see this place as a kind of Eden, with lucky us at the center, where gray jays perch on us and pick bread and dog food out of our hands. But female pine grosbeaks, for some reason more often than the males, confuse our windows with sky. They brain themselves on our house, thinking they can fly through it. When this happens, I see less romance than thievery in our occupation of this forest. This sense of harm lives alongside my joys.
The Dance of Splitting Wood
The wood-getting, the wood-burning, have more dimensions now. Privilege and the scarcity of humans here allows us to take dead trees for spruce firewood at approximately the rate the forest produces them, ourselves not so separate from all the animals and birds and insects who depend on the decaying links of forest succession. Even with our saws and sleds and trailers, our warmth is locally produced, at the cost of a small amount of gasoline to haul it out of the neighboring woods, buck it to length with a chainsaw, split it into stove-sized chunks with my beloved machine. Birch comes from a hundred miles away, though, hauled with diesel fuel we pour copiously into the pickup truck.
One standing dead tree at a time, if there are not too many woodcutters, the clutter of ruin that is the life of a forest can continue. Biomass burning is touted as “carbon neutral” by the Trump-era EPA and the wood fuels industry, but the math only works on the largest scale—all of the sun’s energy given to us is still contained here after all. If we want to live on this planet for a long time, in the comfort we must acknowledge has been ours, this activity can only be sustained if there are not too many wood-burners and if the replacement forest is in lock-step to absorb the burst of carbon released by the burning wood. When we are so few—as we are almost nowhere else now—succession can proceed, in its own time, to some other kind of woods for a little while, and the sky can heal itself from the smoke of our fires.
It is deep in our culture to be here. The Anglo-Saxon word for tree, treow, is also the word for faith, trust, and loyalty. Should we wonder, now, into what fractals and directions these abstract qualities extend?
The spruce around us are getting taller. When we came, we built high windows that gave us views over the tops of little trees. Now those trees sway in the wind between us and the lake, shelter us from the long bright arc of the mid-summer sun. The forest is swallowing us a little. But what it may want is longer than what we can imagine. Of necessity it yearns for fire and renewals with us or with no regard for us.
Whether we are good for this place we live depends on the unanswerable conundrum of who “we” are. While we wake with that question every morning—that ancient question dreamed by us or by the ant or by the fire itself—we know the forest is unquestionably good for us. It quiets our anxieties, mends us, loosens our old shoulders as we swing the axes, puts healing weight on our bones as we lift the rounds. There’s a patience here that no one else has ever been able to teach me.
I talk to my father most days that I work on wood, tell him that I am safe and strong and that I still miss him. Next month, on Father’s Day as it happens, he will have been dead for 33 years and I am 65 years old. I can work all day at wood, my muscle memory and my attention in harness with the machine, even the ugliest lightning-scar or broken trunk or jutting knot considered by me for the right placement of the blade, the catch and swing of the stove-sized chunk.
The blade of the Saint moves slowly and stops when I release the lever, presenting less danger than those kinds of splitters that knock the rounds apart with an accelerated whack. Still, I know people without fingers. When my leather glove catches on a rough edge or I’m holding onto the back wall of the splitter as the wood presses against it, I am present in every pore.
There is a kind of dancing in this job. My father, who was likely to take on a physical task with as much anger as it took to get it done, sometimes worked “as if he was killing snakes,” the sweat pouring into his eyes. As I push into the wood tasks, my body glows with heat. I am on the edge of pain as I lift the rounds and work the machine, but I don’t fight the motions like I used to do—until my back kinked and my arms ached. I think of water flowing as I pick up a round, hoist it onto the splitter arms. I stretch before I pull the handle back toward me, rest as the steel wedge starts into the round. The interval between the blade entering the wood and the wood popping apart is long enough for me to breathe. The knot or the 45-degree twist is there to amuse me, to show me what the wood did for a living, what it wants to do now. Pieces that won’t stack will go into the summer pile for campfires with friends or just for us, whimsical forms to tell us stories as they glow in the midnight twilight.
If the bark wrinkles instead of splits on the top side, I reverse the ram and let the round ride up against the front stop so the machine pulls its own wedge back out. A news commentator voice permanently installed inside me by the twentieth century makes wry note that the old, half-inch-thick birch bark has failed to break again. And so, “in a surprising turn of events,” I heave the stubborn thing on its back and unzip it from the opposite direction.
The wood defies my expectations and makes me laugh, seldom breaking into the size or shape I’ve planned even though I look at the grain, the knots, where the dark sapwood stops and the heartwood begins. I note the flaky rot that takes all the warmth and weight out of dense spruce heartwood, in its final stage filling the entire bole, bark to bark. If a rotten round gets as far as the splitter, those pieces go in the “summer” pile too. The ant-eaten pieces become kindling. There are ants, spruce beetle larvae, woody tumors of fungal decay. We sort the wood by its illnesses and idiosyncrasies and how we believe it will split. We set aside the straightest grained logs to buck shorter for the cook stove.
Jim has an efficient trick where he splits a dinner plate-sized round then flips it 90 degrees to run the wedge through it again, neatly quartering the wood. This only works with the smoothest rounds of the right size, the kind of wood those Swedes have stacked tight against their buildings. I love to watch him do this, but I’m jealous of the affections of the Saint. My favorite is to Bogart the splitting job and hand him the pieces to stack, filling his hands at the same moment he turns to me, putting another round down at the same moment the wedge has traveled far enough to accept it. Doing wood this way together is as wordless as lovemaking—with everything that could be said giving its weight to silence. We become a kind of reciprocating machine ourselves, depending on each other’s timing and strength. It makes us close. It bends us together.
We live with aging branches, too, my hips sturdy today but a shoulder too sore to lift the pieces onto the pile, his hip hurting but his reach good, stuffing pieces of wood high against the ceiling to finish another rank. Four foot by eight foot by four foot high is a full cord; we do the math by inches. Six ranks in the shed makes seven cords to get us through next March. A cold spring could take another rank but by then we will have done all this again, “repaired the hole in the woodshed” one more time—before the back wall comes into view.