Bringing in the wood

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(Host) The sound of chainsaws in the woods and the smell of wood smoke in the morning are sure signs that summer has ended and autumn has arrived. For those who heat with wood, its time to cut, split and stack the winter supply.

VPR’s Steve Zind explores the tradition of getting in the wood:

(Zind) Up the Bethel-Gilead Road south of Randolph, the pavement ends and the tidy yards give way to the wooded, steep hills around Carl Russell’s place. Russell’s 150 acres have been in his family since the 1930s.

A fit 42-year old, he makes his living as forester and a logger. In the fall, between jobs, he gets in his firewood.

(Sound of horses and cart.) Skidders, trucks and wood splitters are the tools of the modern firewood trade. But Russell prefers another way.

(Russell) “Things are kind of slow when you’re working with horses. I always say, if you’re in a hurry, you started two weeks too late.” (Laughs)

(Sound of horses snorting as the work.)

(Zind) Russell rides in a small cart that his two big work horses pull up a steep, rugged logging trail that fades into an old sugarbush above his house.

Russell likes the meditative pace of this work. He likes the quiet of the woods. And he enjoys interacting with the animals.

Russell’s getting in his firewood, but he’s also culling dead and dying trees, making way for new growth. He’s got his eye on a leafless old sugar maple about 80 feet tall.

(Russell) “I’m standing at the bottom of the tree to see which way it’s leaning because I want to try to drop it in a place where it won’t destroy anything and it’ll be the easiest to clean up.

“The bole of this tree is quite large and the whole thing is leaning in one particular direction. But I have a couple of wedges and a hammer and a pretty good streak of confidence, so I’m going to put it right where I want it – which doesn’t necessarily coincide with any of those factors. But I think I’ve got enough going for me that I can probably put it anywhere I want it.”

(Zind) The early morning fog has burned off and the forest floor is mottled in shadow and light. The horses wait quietly nearby. A nuthatch whistles low in the trees. This could be a scene from the Vermont of two centuries ago.

(Sound of gasoline pouring into a chain saw.” But now it’s time to wake the noisy, gas-driven god of modern wood gathering: the chain saw.

(Sound of Russell trying to start chainsaw.) “Awwww. Puller cord came right out of the saw.”

(Zind) After a quick repair, it’s time to drop the tree.

(Sound of chain saw starting up and running.)

(Zind) Russell hammers a wedge into the cut he’s made. He’s trying to coax the tree to fall in a convenient direction. But this tree won’t be persuaded.

(Sound of hammer driving wedge into tree; the chain saw runs and the tree falls.) “There you have it. That stump was all rotted.”

(Zind) Once he limbs the tree and cuts it into log lengths, Russell puts the horses to work.

(Russell) “On a working load, the two of them together can easily pull their own weight which is about 4,000 pounds.

“Haw, back, whoa. Those are directional commands. Gee and haw. Gee means to the right and haw means to the left.

(Zind) The horses pull their loads to a flat area a short distance away. Russell unhitches each log and rolls it aside.

Once he’s cut a log into firewood-length blocks, Russell picks up his maul.

(Russell) “This maul head was given to me when I was 15 years old to split wood. I have a relationship with it.” (Laughs). “Every once in a while we have to go find a new handle to fit into the relationship.” (Sound of chopping.)

“The trick is to swing fast and to follow the cracks that you can see. Right in the pith of the tree, there’s a crack that runs right across the pith. I’ll work in a straight line both sides of that pith and try to open it up. Sometimes it takes several swings.”

(Zind) For Carl Russell, the time and labor spent cutting, hauling, bucking, splitting and stacking ten cords of wood each season is a matter of choice, not necessity. (Sound of split wood landing on a pile.)

A cluster of small totems hangs around Russell’s neck. A bear claw. A tooth from his first work horse. A tiny tree ball. A tooth from an ox he once owned. Each symbolizes Russell’s sense of intimacy with the land and with Vermont’s past.

Russell says sometimes as he’s getting in the wood, he finds the words to express those feelings.

(Russell) The sounds of hooves and harness chains
echo deep into my veins
and play like shadows cast in space
of other lives who’ve passed this place.
At times like these I catch the sight of those
who’ve crossed this beam of light
and eddied in the current here
the prints they’ve made are very clear.”

(Sound of horses trailing away.)

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Bethel.

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