Monday, October 22, 2007

Zen Firewood

Today, I'm fondly remembering yesterday.  Yesterday I "made wood", pretty much all day.  Yes, in spite of the crummy back; forced by the additive realities of cold weather, an approaching trip away for me, leaving Spice and Smidgen at risk from a non-existent supply of dry wood, and an incoming rain storm- now or never.  And the reality that the more you rest, the weaker you become- inviting re-injury whenever to attempt to start working again.  The back is not back; but being careful, I could manage, and the need was critical.  I succeeded; excellent firewood was brought into the shed; enough for now.

Today I burned up my accumulated spiritual energy tackling FEMA, formally filing the claim for the flooded mowers.  That was a mixed experience- the invitations to do it all on the web uniformly ended in "failed to load page" - or something similar.  Eventually with great trepidation I resorted to the phone- and met Lydia; who was a delightful and competent person.  Whew.  The end result of all the filing and filling in of blanks is that the NEXT set of forms to fill should arrive in "from 7 to 14 days" - if they can figure out why my zipcode is not the one the computer insisted on automatically putting in.  Lydia assured me she'd tell "them" about the zipcode glitch.  One can hope.  At any rate- our claim is now "in the system"; we have a number.  Whew.

The process of getting in a pickup-load of wood, (we bought a replacement for the stolen truck; had to) with a dicey back, reminded me forcefully of the tremendous amount of art involved in firewood.  And, I will arrogantly admit, I am an artist where firewood is concerned.  I love the whole process; from finding the tree, to the whiffs of smoke; and even the spreading of the ashes back in the forest.  And the warmth; the hot coffee, pot roast, soup, new bread, and warmed hands.  At every step- there is a great deal to know; right ways, wrong ways, easy paths, and hard ones.

My being out of shape with the iffy back enforced the practice of the art: artfully done is easy; and effective; carelessly done is hard work, inefficient, and dangerous.

First- the tree.  I'd been watching this tree for at least 5 years, with firewood in mind.  It was dying 5 years ago; dead 3 years ago; and drying out since then.  Ready, now.  This was a 60' tall red elm (Ulmus rubra); also called slippery elm; one of my favorite trees, for many reasons.  Killed most likely by the "Dutch elm disease", which is still very active here; red elms die much more slowly than American elms, though; and some don't die at all. 

Elm has a bad reputation as firewood- because of American elm, and some of the other species.  Mostly elms make good fuel; if you can get it into the fire before it rots.  Most elms are treacherous to fell; they can be huge, but riddled with rot only a year after they die, making the top into what loggers call a "widowmaker" - while the tree is falling to the north, a huge chunk of the top may break off under the stress- and fall south; on you.  Red elms don't do this; they can stand dead for 10 years, and never rot at all.  Elm in general is one of the rare woods that actually dries out while standing in the woods; an oak can be dead for 6 years and will be wetter than the day it died, red elm is as dry as if put through a kiln, all but the bottom 5 feet, 2-3 years after it dies.  Most elms are renowned for being "unsplittable" (unless you've got a heavy hydraulic splitter) - the fibers intertwine; but red elm usually splits like oak, straight and straightforward.  (Ok, I said usually.  Yeah, I've run into some that were hard to split- but I've now learned to identify those before felling; you can see it in the skin of the tree.)  And, finally, elm is supposed to stink when burned; the farmers' name for American elm around here is "piss-elm", for that reason.  Red elm, though, smells like incense; and the freshly split wood to me smells just like a shop-full of Japanese wood carvings; something I remember acutely from my childhood.

No one disputes the fuel value of elm; it's good hot wood regardless of species.  I'll burn American elm if I have to; and rock elm any time I can find a small one dead for exactly one year.  But those trees are essentially unforgiving; 10 things have to be exactly right, or you're wasting your time.  Red elm is my friend.

These days, much of our firewood comes from trees we planted ourselves; that's a different process, a different art; and includes drying wood already cut.  But we got 15 inches of rain in August.  All our cut, stacked new wood is now soaking wet, no matter how dry it was in July.  So it's back to the Big Woods, where the red elms are dry, no matter what; the standing trees have no end-grain exposed to absorb the rain, so it just runs off.

Second- felling.  Don't guess; don't hope.  You really need to KNOW where it's going to fall when you cut it.  Sure, I learned a lot of that the hard way, including fun experiences like dropping a pine right on a pickup truck (not my fault, but I was there!) and having trees tangled in neighboring trees so it took 4 years for them to come all the way down.  Those things are ALWAYS avoidable; caused by just a little carelessness, and often by being in a hurry.  Don't hurry.  Really.

This tree was leaning a little the wrong way; oh, about 7°.  Solution; a rope, and some people pulling on it.  Sometimes just one person pulling will be all you need; just a little insurance.  In this case, we needed more- it was a heavy tree, headed right for a 4-year tangle if it went where it was leaning; 3 people.  60 foot tree- 100 foot rope, so your pullers are out of the reach of flying branches.  1" polypropylene rope.  NOT nylon rope, it stretches, most of the force you apply just gets lost in the stretch.  Natural ropes like sisal are not bad; but they rot in time; I've had this same polypropylene rope for 30 years; it's the same one I built the house with, and probably still has 90% of its original strength; no sign of wearing out.  Made a slip-noose with a bowline knot; the forces you're dealing with here are very large, it's easy to wind up with a knot jammed so tight after the tree falls that you can't untie it; bowlines never slip, and are always easy to untie.

I ran the chain saw, Spice, Middle Child and MC's spouse were on the rope.  Smidgen was in the truck, watching from well away.

It didn't go as smoothly as I'd like.  I prefer a deep notch, more than 50% of the trunk, for a leaner like this.  When I started the felling cut from the back, I yelled "PULL" - but when the tree finally started to shift- it sat down on the chainsaw blade; falling the wrong way.  Not moving, but not good.  "PULL HARDER!"  And, luckily, 3 people pulling harder was enough to move it off the saw, and get it falling the right way.  Whew.  But not quite as planned; it was supposed to drop on the road, but because I miscalculated the cut a tad, it dropped just to the side- slightly hung up in a small hop hornbeam tree.  But workable.  Hey, the top of the 60' tree wound up 15' west of where I wanted it to be; so sue me.  In retrospect- yeah, I was a little hurried on the cut.  Don't hurry.  I knew that, of course, which is seldom enough for us humans.  Ah, well, I gave Middle Child an opportunity to smirk at me a little; since he's a perfectly competent man with a chainsaw himself.  That's a good thing; I figure I owe my children plenty of amusement, since they've amused me so often.

Third- disassembly.  Once you cut the tree down, you cut it up, a source of perpetual humor for me.  Now, I was alone; not the preferred policy for safety purposes, but reality for any farmer; sometimes you have no real choice.  So when you have to work alone; you get really really careful.  And slow.  And these days, with a two-way radio in your pocket.   Chainsaws are fantastically powerful tools- which means they can kill you in a second if you do something stupid.  Slow down.  The crummy back meant going slow, too- don't overdo.  Who could ask for better meditation?  Chainsaw Tai Chi.

No, really.  Cut exactly here; the right size for the stove; cutting here will not make the remaining trunk suddenly shift and kill me; it avoids that knot, which will dull the chain, and leaves 2 more adequate pieces before that fork, which will have to be cut apart differently...

Thoughtless cutting will quadruple the work- the piece won't fit in the stove- etc.  Slow, think ahead- pays huge dividends.

My back is complaining- change the footing, so the angle of the weight of the saw is eased.  Rest.  Must not push the back too far.

Much of the trunk must be split to go in the stove.  Swinging the ten-pound splitting maul is another art; you can let the maul, and gravity, do the work; or try to force it through the chunk with all your muscle.  I'm lazy; I'd SO much rather do it the easy way.  Swing-toss it up in the air; tug it down in the right direction- and DON'T think about aiming it.  This part gets seriously zennish.  If I'm paying no attention to aiming the maul- I'll hit the chunk dead center.  I mean exactly dead center, I'll stick the blade of the maul right into the center ring of the tree.  Every time.  Until I start paying attention.  And if two strikes are necessary to split it; I'll stick the maul smack in the crack from the first split; every time; unless I'm paying attention.

It's absolutely fascinating for a biologist; how is it that the mere act of focus results in such consistently poor performance; where paying no conscious attention results if absolute precision from truly daunting variables?  This chunk is not the same as the last; it's not the same shape or size, not in the same place, the ground under it is tilted; my footing is different: and with no "higher" processing, I hit it exactly right; over and over.  It's a joyful thing, when the chunk splits effortlessly; and funny, when I start noticing, and start missing; and joy again when I successfully manage to NOT pay attention once more.  It IS art, and the result of years of splitting; I started splitting firewood when I was 14 or so.

Fourth- tossing the pieces into the truck.  Again- it can be easy; or hard.  I toss two or three or four at a time, depending on size; swinging the weight of the wood like pendulum weights; releasing so it goes into the box, not over, not short, and not through the glass on the truck cab...  Bend over; stand up- swing; release (not throw); use the arm momentum to get back down for the next pieces.  More Tai Chi, sort of; rhythmic, steady, purposeful.

Fifth- getting the wood from the truck into the shed, out of reach of rain or snow.  This involves my macho wheelbarrow; a 10 cubic footer, with TWO wheels, and a trip of 100 feet, very slightly downhill.  Load the barrow; don't smash the fingers (gloves!), wheeling, guiding; don't tip it!  Balancing; don't let it run away; dump into the shed; toss again, into the final pile.

Done.  No rain, yet.  Back, arms, hands tired- but not hurt.

Satisfaction.  And some cramping in my hands, while falling asleep.  :-)


Anonymous said...

Greenpa, reading this I have developed a small crush on you. Don't tell my girlfriend :).

The thing about not concentrating reminds me a lot of the state I'm in when I dance. I work with a form called Contact Improvisation, which is built around two bodies in mutually weight-dependent contact at a single point - an inherently unstable system. When I teach, I'm always telling my students that gravity will think faster than you, no matter how smart you are. And the angle of the ground, the direction of the grain, the exact level of exhaustion of your muscles - they make a similar complex system. You just have to let your brain go and dance with the wood. One of the originators of this dance form said, "replace ambition with curiosity." That's what I live by when I'm improvising. Which is pretty much always.

Crunchy Chicken said...

" is it that the mere act of focus results in such consistently poor performance; where paying no conscious attention results if absolute precision from truly daunting variables?"

I think you are experiencing some bizarre form of quantum mechanics a la Schrödinger's Cat wherein your conscious observation (entanglement) is affecting the outcome. Whaddya think?

Chile said...

What a beautiful description, Greenpa. I love the zen aspects of chopping wood myself but have had little need for it in the desert.

Anonymous said...

Sshhh. Don't wake him up; we'll tell him tomorrow what a nice post this was...

Greenpa said...

Jen- oh, my. I'll keep mum. :-)

I hadn't heard of CI, so googled. Wikipedia says it started at Oberlin, in 1972. Now that's pretty astonishing- I graduated there in 1970; and my ex was- a dancer there (she was a biologist, too.)

Chrunchy- lol! A fun idea, but the vast majority of psychologists freak if you suggest quantum stuff has anything to do with brain function (which of course doesn't mean it doesn't). Actually this kind of non-directed attention is well known in many fields; music being the most accessible- ask any instrumental musician playing some insanely rapid show-off piece if they're thinking about their fingers while they're playing, and the answer is always the same; if they think about it, they can't do it. Practice, learn it, then get your brain out of the way and LET it come out. I think it's mostly a universal mind capability that western science just hasn't figured out how to study yet.

Anonymous said...

I'm Oberlin class of '93 myself. You might have known the two originators of the form when you were there - Nancy Stark Smith and Steve Paxton.

Crunchy Chicken said...

ghreenpa - I have that very same problem when I play the piano. If I shut my brain off I can play a seriously complex piece but the second I think about it - poof!

Greenpa said...

Chile- :-) thanks. Hopefully you will not have to post about zen firefighting - ever-

Annette - :-) aww. thanks.

Jen-wild! I might know their faces- not the names, though; my senior year was crazy busy.

Cronchy- don't think of it as a PROBLEM! That's the problem. um. The real problem is to teach yourself to see it as a non-problem... which is difficult... which is where the zen training comes in REALLY handy. It just IS. ok, fine. :-)

I seem to remember an interview with Rubenstein, where he claimed to be thinking about his breakfast, while he was performing-

perrence said...

Indeed, smirking at dad is a rare and glorious occurance. And I certainly can attest to the power of the zen approach.
glad you didn't hurt yourself!
Middle Child

Greenotter said...

I read the NY Times and found such a pithy comment under your "greenpa" handle, about the Bush person's editing of findings on global warming, that I did something I've never done before. I did a search on your name to see if I could find anything else you've written and I found your blog. I spent the whole afternoon reading it.

Count me as one of the readers who likes both your rants and your reflections on daily life. You made me think about some things I've never thought about before. For an on-grid person w/fridge (the most energy efficient model I could afford) and no active solar, I think my total energy usage/costs are low at an average of $40/month. I would love to have a wood stove but I am sensitive to smoke. I have plans to get active solar though and make my little house zero energy.

There is lots to learn from a person such as yourself, who is clear-thinking on energy, who has walked the walk for so many years. With the crisis our planet faces, I can't figure out why so many people are buying ever larger homes, and gas-guzzling SUVs. It is insane.

Anonymous said...

I also have experienced the fascinating act of hitting dead centre every time if I'm not concentrating, and missing when I am. I love chopping wood, for the zen of it as you have described here and also for the patterns and secrets revealed in the grain with each new (sucessful) chop. I am looking forward to this summers mission of finding a new dead tree to cut. I am lucky the weather here is so hot - fallen trees dry out without rotting so i don't have to get technical with chainsaws and cutting angles.

T- I agree! large houses are so overrated! More cleaning, more energy, more land space taken up... I am so happy with my small house.

jewishfarmer said...

I enjoyed this post a lot - I cut the wood in my family (no chainsaw, so it goes slower) and I'm a wuss - I wouldn't drop a tree that big. But I know the feeling...


Solameanie said...

My late grandmother from Arkansas hated it when my grandfather would bring what she called "p*ss elem" (she added the "e" in her pronunciation). She said it was hard to cook with and "all it does all day is sob and weep." I can't testify to trying to cook with it, but I do know that it's lousy wood for a fireplace unless you have a bed of really hot coals already established. I find it hard to get a fire going with that kind of elm. Once you have a fire going, then great. It will burn.

Peter Noli Kaminofen Fan said...

To make wood also means to increase the value of the firewood. To use it in an efficiently way I recommend to use a modern, wood boiler. So, if you own a house an easy way to save money is to use firewood instead of oil or gas.
For those who like to know whats the value of firewood and who wants to calculate how much energy is hidden in firewood (compared to oil or gas )I like to recommend this link. Energy, Firewood & Boiler stove