It was time to take down the old birch tree. It had been slowly dying ever since being damaged by the big ice storm of ’98. It had rebounded for a few seasons then seemed to give up. There were still a couple of limbs with live foliage, but death was imminent. I’d been putting off the job because it’s a lot of work to take down a fairly large tree and turn it into firewood.
My wife and I purchased 28 acres of woods on the west side of Christian Hill in Lovell, Maine with another couple back in 1983 and split it down the middle. In ’85, I cleared enough on our 14-acre half for a house. Down the hill there were parallel stone walls a hundred feet apart in the woods. Between them were remains of apple trees in the mature second growth and I began there to clear out a view toward the New Hampshire mountains. Every summer I cut enough to heat through winter and after a decade, I had the view the way I wanted it. Just behind the house were seven white birches each going up about thirty feet before branching out. These I saved to look out under their canopies to the view.
But I didn’t know how finicky birches could be. I was careful not to disturb them while clearing around them but six died anyway. Because they got more sun or wind than they were accustomed to? I don’t know, but only one survived until the big ice storm weakened it. It stood alone for another eighteen years, but now it had to go.
|wife, grandson and birch ten years ago|
For more than twenty years, I cut my own firewood from stump to stove, but I’m sixty-five now and it had been a while. My big chain saw seemed heavier than it used to, but the old birch fell where I wanted it to and my grandson helped from there. He wanted to use a chainsaw, so I fired up the small saw, gave him lessons on safety, and together we worked it up. He asked how we were going to lift the large, pieces that comprised the trunk. “We won’t,” I explained. “I’ll split them here and lug them up as firewood.” He dragged off the small limbs to a brush pile in the woods and we quit for the day.
After that it was up to me to do the splitting. I brought my bolt hook and splitting maul down and began with the biggest pieces. Never have I rented a wood splitter because I could work faster with a maul, but that had been many years ago. The maul seemed heavier too, but I remembered that it’s not how hard you hit: Knowing where is more important, and so is aim. For large butt pieces I sometimes needed steel wedges but not on this tree. The grain was straight and each cylinder split in two with a few hits on the diameter. My hands blistered up the first day and I had to leave off for a week, but after that it was pure pleasure. I’d start wearing three layers and be down to one in twenty minutes. All the sounds, smells, and feelings came back. I’d look toward the distant mountains, feel the wind coming off them and the sun on my face, and I was a young man again. Frost wrote about this in Two Tramps in Mud Time:
Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.
I don’t generally like poetry, but Frost always spoke to me. I remembered Birches, in which he described a boy climbing smaller ones and bending them to the ground. Then he went deeper:
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
And here’s how he ended it:
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
…or a cutter of one in my case.