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I was positive it was a giant sequoia, but everyone assured me it was just a "pretty good wood tree".

I was new to the Methow – a product of suburbia – and my interest in one of the daughters of an old valley family led to her parents' interest in having me help them get firewood . . . 13 cords of it.  I still think it was a daughter-worthy test despite the contrary claims that backbreaking work is just how old valley families relate.

We were up some "krik", down some "side road" (it looked like a pre-roman wheel track to me). Backed up to the Washington Monument of conifers was the "wood truck", a 1949 Dodge that required double-clutching and was prone to vapor lock (if you understand that you are, I hate to tell you, no longer young). "Dad" was sizing up the challenge, eyes skyward, a chainsaw the size of his young daughter in his left hand. "Mom" was sizing up Dad's sizing up as she stashed lunch and distributed tools. I was suddenly wondering if the old girlfriend who ended our relationship by destroying my apartment might be interested in another try.

I knew that the not-Sequoia had to be converted into the triangular sticks you see in bundles at the grocery store but I wasn't sure how, so I watched and waited. There was some circling of the trunk, then the throaty whine of the chainsaw, some echoing raps as a wedge was buried, more grinding roar, then a CRACK like a towel snap from Thor as the tree started its final arc.

I had seen this before – in the movies – so I had no cause for alarm. Then the behemoth hit. The sound was what I imagined an asteroid strike might be like. As the ground beneath me shook I thought of angry trolls rising up to show us what becomes of those that disturb them. I stood motionless, mouth hanging open, as the family crew trotted toward the downed giant like it was a friendly playmate.

In those days this successful falling was simply the start of a "pretty good wood day". Today I think bringing down a tree this size just to burn it up would cause the defenders of cavity nesters to cry a river of tears that the defenders of fish would then have to manage for suitable instream flow.

But that's probably a moot point since the "efficient and effective sustainable stewardship of national forest resources in order to protect and enhance viable habitats" (okay, I made that up . . . sort of) has pretty much reduced available firewood to trees that used to be considered in the way of getting to the real wood trees. (All right, maybe households needing 13 cords of firewood a year had something to do with it.)

Working like ants we reduced the former tree to "rounds" (some roughly the size of an ice rink), reduced the rounds to "sticks", then "ricked" the sticks into the truck. Through it all I managed to nearly sever an arm by burying the chainsaw tip (despite the warning about burying the chainsaw tip), nearly fracture a leg with an overzealous maul swing (despite the warning about overzealous maul swings), break the sledge handle by overshooting the wedge (despite the warning . . .), and hit a rock with the chainsaw (after that it cut in the perfect arc of a crescent moon).

As the day wore on I became convinced someone was removing wood from the front of the truck as we loaded the back because it never seemed to fill up. My muscles started to scream like rioting prisoners and every drop of water I drank seemed to bypass my entire digestive tract and go straight to my pores. Probably noticing my face was the color of a tomato someone in the family said, through a quiet chuckle, "Funny thing about firewood . . . it warms you twice."

That was four cords.

I rested up by going on a ten day hike with a 70 pound backpack. On my return I heard the "exciting" news – the family had located another "pretty good wood tree". It had to be gotten quick, though, before some other high-cordage household swooped in. The catch this time was that only "Dad" and I were available to get it.

Now I knew it was a test. But, since the target daughter was becoming even more appealing, I had no choice. Besides, certainly there couldn't be another dead tree in the woods the size of a Saturn rocket.

There wasn't.
It was only the size of a Titan.
What a relief.

Mostly in focused silence the two of us toppled, sliced, rolled, split, lifted, loaded and stacked another full four cords (so I'm told . . . I still believe "cord" was an upwardly adjustable unit of measurement for this family). Then some particularly stubborn rounds began toying with my maul strikes, sucking them up like candy without even a hint of a crack in the wood. "Dad" showed me his technique – swing hard, hit a precise point between the center and bark, and just before impact add a strong twist using your wrists. In one graceful move he popped the cantankerous wooden disk in two.

It felt like acceptance, learning this secret of the ages. I stood tall, firmed my footing, exhaled, and swung with everything my protesting muscles had to offer. An instant before contact I turned my wrists just as he had. Or so I thought. The maul ricocheted off the round so hard it clattered my teeth then sailed out of my hands and past my potential father in law clearing him by a good, oh, say 2 inches.

"Hmmm", he said, calmly. Then we returned to our focused silence.

By the end of the day I had reached a new level of exhaustion and it was all I could do to pull myself up into the truck cab. There, on the seat, was the lunch I had forgotten to eat. As we rattled and bumped our way out of the woods toward home my firewood sensei turned part way toward me and said in his calm teacher voice:

"You know, I like you.
You don't take breaks."

I remember wondering if that old girlfriend was still at the same number.
Now I wonder why I wondered that.

Uh-oh . . . house is getting chilly.
Guess I'll have to hike over to the thermostat and fix that.


read more Edwards in the archive