Matthew Dickerson: The delight of one outdoor chore


The temperature is in the low teens. My chainsaw hums smoothly. The machine likes this temperature. I stand in six inches of snow next to a huge old maple that got toppled by a strong wind a few weeks ago. It made quite a thump when it hit the ground (whether anybody was there to hear it or not). On its way down, it took out a pine tree and a black birch. The pine was a foot and a half in diameter and the birch almost that big. Both looked as though they’d been healthy prior to their untimely demise. Collateral damage, I guess. They won’t go to waste, though. I’ve already cut them into firewood for 2023 — the birch destined for a wood stove and the pine for a fireplace.

Now I’m working on the maple. A big tree, many of its limbs are fat enough to need splitting. I’m working on those limbs first, saving the main trunk for later. My fingers are still cold. They don’t appreciate the teen temperatures as much as the chainsaw does. But I know they will warm soon enough. If running the chainsaw doesn’t get me hot and sweaty, then chucking the wood into a pile will.

I enjoy all aspects of harvesting firewood: cutting, splitting, hauling it out of the woods, and stacking. Although I can explain this enjoyment, I’m not sure it’s completely rational or consistent. For example, part of my enjoyment comes from the fact that it’s an outdoor activity. At least part of the work of harvesting firewood takes place in the woods, because — well — that’s where trees live. And all of the work takes place outside. I’m sure that’s part of why I enjoy it.

But I certainly don’t enjoy all outdoor chores. I rather dislike raking leaves, which seems futile. I’m barely across my lawn when a puff of wind rattles the branches above me. I look over my shoulder to find the big patch I just raked is covered in leaves again. Maybe I also dislike raking because it was a required childhood chore, and my childhood house was surrounded by trees. There was no clear distinction between the woods and the “yard,” so raking the “yard” always felt like I was raking the woods.

You could argue that cutting firewood is also futile. I spend all winter and summer cutting, splitting, hauling and stacking, and then a few months later it’s all gone. Literally, all my work goes up in smoke. As soon as I’m done with one winter’s wood, I’m already starting over for the next winter. Yet I still find it satisfying. Maybe because I can appreciate the result. For 16 years we have heated our house primarily with wood. I cut wood, and therefore I am warmed. Sitting by the fire burning wood that I split and stacked is satisfying in the same way that eating vegetables I grew in my garden is. Or dining on venison I harvested myself. Or holding in my hand a physical copy of a book I wrote. One of Aldo Leopold’s better-known quotes references what he refers to as “two spiritual dangers”: “One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” I’m sure there are many spiritual dangers that afflict me, but cutting my own firewood helps protect me from at least one of them.

I have a friend who cuts firewood professionally. I think he cuts between 250 and 300 cords a year. That’s about a cord a day, cut and split, five days a week, all year long. I’m not sure he enjoys it as much as I do. Although he’s been at it for a couple decades, so maybe he does. I only cut about 1/50th what he cuts. Roughly five cords a year, not five a week, is enough to keep our house warm. That’s a lot less pressure.

Then there’s the smell. Not the smell of chainsaw gas. I could do without that. The smell of the freshly cut wood itself, especially black birch, is wonderful. Splitting a big log is also satisfying — watching it fall into several smaller pieces that will dry more quickly, and fit in the stove more easily. Stacking the split wood is perhaps most satisfying of all: searching through the split pieces for well-matched pairs that I can turn into a tower like a game of Jenga. Although I doubt they would admit this, I think my adult sons are so proficient at building with Lego because of the years they spent helping me stack firewood.

The last aspect that I find enjoyable is maybe the least obvious of all: cutting firewood is one of the ways I get to know trees better. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s a way of getting to know the forest.

To explain this, I should point out that I don’t cut healthy trees for firewood; I’m not trying to get to know something by killing it. I think it was J.R.R. Tolkien’s character Aragorn who pointed out that one who destroys something in order to know it has left the path of wisdom. I agree. The vast majority of my firewood comes from already fallen trees, like the maple I’m working on now, and the pine and the birch that came down with it. I will also take down trees that are still standing, but already dead. On rare occasions I’ll cut down a living tree, but only if it’s badly diseased or storm damaged, and by taking it down I’m making space in the canopy for younger, healthier trees.

All of those cases, though, are opportunities to get to know the trees better, and to see how each tree is a part of the forest. Standing in the forest, paying attention to the trees and making mental note of where I need to harvest next, I begin to notice things. What creatures make homes in the dying trees, or the husks of trees on the ground? How do different birds make uses of different types of trees, and what little wild flowers grow in what patches of soil? Somebody could describe to me how the grain of an ash differs from the grain of an American hophornbeam, but I doubt I would have fully grasped or remembered that if I hadn’t swung a maul into an ash and watched it fall apart along a wonderfully flat (and very stackable) plane with the slightest bit of effort — and then spent 20 minutes trying to get a piece of hophornbeam half as big to fall apart into two halves.

I wonder if one reason so many people have lost connections with the natural world is that so much of our modern work is so far removed from the natural world. Not everybody has the opportunity to restore those connections through outdoor labor. Vermonters are more fortunate in that regard. I hope I can keep on heating by wood for many years to come.

But if you want to come over and rake my lawn for me, that’s also OK.

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