Getting the wood in for the winter

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(Host) Thanksgiving marks the time when Vermonters who heat with wood are putting the finishing touches on their woodpiles.

It’s the end of a long process that, for some, began in the woods when the weather was still warm.

A few seasons ago, VPR’s Steve Zind visited with one Vermonter who gets in his wood much as they did a half century ago…

(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.

(Sound of horses and cart.)

In the fall, he gets in his firewood.

(Zind) 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 got started two weeks too late." (Laughs)

(Sound of horses snorting as they 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, He’s got his eye on a leafless old sugar maple about 80 feet tall.

(Russell) "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."

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

(Sound of gasoline pouring into a chain saw.)

(Zind) But now it’s time to wake the noisy, gas-driven god of modern wood gathering: the chain saw.

(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.)

(Russell) "Well, there you have it. That stump was all rotted."

(Zind) He limbs the tree and cuts it into log lengths. Then he puts the horses to work.

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 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.)

(Zind) 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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