Second Installment: A Thin Slice of Sky

Heating with Wood

 

Cut your own wood and warm yourself twice. – Proverb

 

Within a few years, Dad had erected the permanent house. In winter, our bedroom floors were icy. We piled blankets on and pulled them up to our chins, or up to our noses, depending on the temperature. The reason for our frozen exile was that the bedroom doors stayed closed, preserving heat in the center of the house, the common living space, and areas with plumbing.

Our only heat source was a wood stove. Wood stoves in the 1950s were not marvels of engineering and art. They used wood cord upon cord. They smoked. As teenagers, we fretted that our clothes smelled like trappers’. I even resorted to hanging mine outside on the back porch where only the frost and wind could reach them.

But wood heat also has charms to recommend it. The stove was as much a family focal point and gathering place as the dining table and the piano. Like a campfire, the wood stove warmed front, back, feet or hands as needed, but not all at once. Regulating the temperature was a simple matter of moving closer to, or farther away from, the stove. At 6:00 a.m., three shivering teenagers scampered to its proximity to dress. In the evenings, we directed our guitar and fiddle music to it, as if the black behemoth could applaud.

A battered kettle spluttered on its top. Naturally dry air, made drier by burning wood, was humidified in this manner. Sledders draped their soaked clothes on chairs standing in a circle around the stove. They hoped for an expedited return to the hill. Mother used a rack made of wooden dowels for drying laundry in the winter when clothes hung outdoors would freeze solid.

Chopping wood was pleasant labor. I located the weakest part of the log, looking for drying cracks. Then I raised the double-bitted axe, aimed and let fly. Proper aim, strength and judgment were rewarded with a sharp, snapping noise. Halves of pine tumbled off the chopping block. I set aside choice blocks that held promise as kindling. Dryness and straightness are the attributes. With my right hand, I gripped the axe hear its head. Accuracy, not power, is what is called for. My left hand gingerly held the quarter block, ready to release a split second before impact. I cut progressively smaller sticks until what began as bridge timbers was reduced to pencils. I pride myself on arriving at young adulthood with all the fingers of my left hand intact.

The chopping block is flat-topped and bedded into months of wood chips and bark. In its second or third season, it is tenderized, like a bed of moss. Across its top an ant might venture. As pre-teen boys we liked to wager that we were accurate enough to bisect these moving targets. In order to qualify, the axe must be swung from full height. Generally the little beasts were safe, for our brag was worse than our blow.

Radiant heat, the smell of real wood, the satisfaction of providing one’s own fuel and knowing your labor was proportional to the heat enjoyed; these constituted some of the charms of our wood heat system. They partly offset the inconvenience of icy floors and smoky clothes.

 

 

SEASONS

Summer

 

Summer was a Broadway musical. For spectacle, color, and transient passion, no other season was a rival. Cold, white winter was far behind. The endless indecision ofRockyMountainspring had finally given way to the forthright cheer of indisputable summer. When Elisha asked, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” he could have been insisting that a Bear Canyon Spring declare for either winter or summer. Conditions had ranged from cold to warm, from rain, to snow to sleet. Some days included snippets of every imaginable weather. So when the curtain went up on real summer, the audience was more than grateful for the overture’s conclusion.

A procession of wildflowers marked the passing segments of summer. Bluebells, Indian Paintbrush and Glacier Lilies bloomed, then declined in a sequence that to a botanist would have been boringly predictable. Unschooled, we welcomed each new arrival with glee lost on old scientists. The flowers and fruit of wild strawberry, sarvice berry and chokecherry also had a sequence as interesting to children as the progress of beans and squash were to Mother.

One dramatic botanical event was the launching of the cottonwood fluff. I spent serene afternoons, flat on my back, watching the millions of weightless globs drift. I chose one twenty yards up and tried to keep locked on it. I did Euclidean comparisons between its apparent travel and that of a fluff closer in, rough comparisons only, no measurements or calculations.

Monarch butterflies were a similar flood. By the millions they flew through with an Indy 500 urgency. Other moths and butterflies called the canyon home. Their appearance in a certain order marked the relative temporal position in the season.

The biological time posts were a useful calendar because we were out of school and had reduced our trips to town for such things as music lessons. In the summer, obligations to society were less confining, Sunday meetings being about the only reminder of the imperative to synchronize with the rest of mankind.

We spent our time lounging, reading, exploring with the dogs, practicing music, helping in the garden, picking berries, fishing or taking turns riding our only bicycle to the bridge and back. City kids would have thought we were living in the Dark Ages.

Behind the First Cabin, Dad built an extension of the roof, a lean-to. Here stayed the ringer washing machine. It was Rhyll’s job to wash and ring out loads of laundry using this machine. The Consumer Product Safety Commission hadn’t hatched, or the washer would have been recalled and banned. Oh, for the simplicity of those risky days! A creekside washboard would have been safer. One day, Rhyll’s fingers got caught in the ringers, stalling the machine and wrenching howls of pain from her. We extracted her hand and rushed to town where the doctor pronounced no major harm done. The only casualty was that Mother’s innate distrust of technology was confirmed.

Dabs of grass and other forage grew on the shady hill behind the back step. Our gentleJerseycow sought out the tender morsels. I didn’t concern myself much over her absence. Neither did anyone else. But in the late afternoon, Mother urged us to find and bring her back, knowing Dad would want to milk the old bovine when he got home from work. The tangles of snowberry and ninebark frustrated our search, by eventually, we found her by honing in on the soft clang of her copper bell. Then we shoo-ed her home. She tossed her head, smiled, and kicked a little to show that she had gotten the upper hand. She had pried us away from our quiet afternoon of doing nothing.

The horses wandered further when they escaped. Since they didn’t need to be milked, and were practically useless for riding, we had less motivation to bring them back. When the goats got out of the six-foot high board and wife fence, Dad wished them “good riddance”, but Mother made us retrieve them. Dad had no love for goats and cats. When the pigs sought adventure in the thickets behind their pens, we deployed all squadrons, as they were the most creative at resisting capture. We built a tree house in the massive firs that towered around our small clearing. It was constantly in need of repairs. Summer was the time to consider its state, and to expand the wobbly rungs that led up to it. Our committee meetings usually ended up with more talk than action. The house never accommodated more than two people or complied with even our primitive building code. Life was a gamble.

Children squander summer. It is as expensive as tickets on Broadway, and not a step behind in entertainment.

 

Fall

 

Too soon the summer carnival is over. The fall colors, though simple compared to those ofNew England, provide a modest glory.RockyMountainMaple turns a showy red, the best of any shrub in our native collection. Dogwood leaves turn a dull, purple-red. Aspens supply contrasting patches of yellow and green-yellow.

We put the garden to bed. We place straw bales over the rows of carrots so the ground will not freeze. Otherwise, frost penetrates the ground to a depth of two feet, making it impossible to dig. We sack potatoes, squash and onions, then stow them in the root cellar’s bins below shelves of bottled tomatoes, peaches, pears, cherries, apricots and applesauce.

It was time to get out the rifles and try them for accuracy. Dad had a 30-06 with open sights. It was the main hunting rifle. When the boys reached an age when they could hunt, they used the 45-70, an old war relic that shot one shell at a time and delivered a great blow to the shoulder. Once, when I missed a shot at a deer, I saw the fat bullet plow a trench in the hillside.

We were lukewarm hunters, both as to avidity and prowess. Yet the fall always brought with it the urge to pursue deer, elk, and moose for the meat, as well as for the excuse to wander in the woods in trails beyond our usual network close by the house.

The perpetual search for wood stove fuel accelerates in September. We cut up a few fallen cottonwoods and spruces, but they are inferior for fuel because we lack the patience to wait enough seasons for them to dry. Green wood makes early morning fire starting a frustrating business. We sometimes traveled to the lumber mills in Livingston andBelgradefor slab wood. It is cheap because it is inferior; it is small and still has bark.

The house needs to be readied for winter. Window covering goes up. We stuff cracks with bits of insulation to thwart cold drafts. Dad arranges a zig-zag pattern of heat tape on the eaves to melt snow and ice. We cover the crawl space holes with plywood. The holes have been open all summer, allowing humid air to escape. The pump house gets new insulation and heat tape, if needed.

An abundance of windfall apples necessitates a cider pressing party. We invite other families to come. Instead of being a chore, it becomes a party.

Fall is a time of few contemplative moments because of the return to school, music lessons, and other obligations of the civilized world. New Yorkers close toCentral Parkprobably have more time to revel in nature than we do. Their supply of heating oil is secure, food storage is handled by their supermarket, and their dwellings require few modifications at the change of seasons. For us, the summer party is over and it is time to prudently face the coming winter.

 

 

Winter

 

When winter comes, it is not with a blast, but with a firm hug. Notice of its approach is given in shorter days, falling cottonwood leaves and penetrating frosts which burn zucchini to the ground. The Bennie Goodmans of summer – the thrushes – depart and the air grows still but for the Mick Jagger croaks of the remaining crows.

Our protected enclave escapes the wind; no buffeting blasts assist the cold. The icy bear hug seeps through from all directions. The stove flexes and radiates in mighty opposition.

Snow falls straight, like feathers after a pillow fight. So still is the air, the whole winter’s snow accumulates and settles where it falls, most conspicuously on fence posts. Even the clothes line and barbed wire fences are decked with several inches. They appear as sagging white planks on edge. Fir and spruce hold more snow on their boughs than the laws of physics predict.

Snow settles, melts and compresses on all horizontal surfaces. Fresh snow frosts the older sediments, like icing on cake. In this manner, a brief history of the long winter is preserved in layers – archaeology with a six-month time frame. No drifts are whipped up, though two miles away, at the mouth of the canyon, crusty drifts pester motorists. In our fold, the snow falls deep enough that, unaided by wind, it thwarts half-hearted doings.

But however restricted, our lives must go on. We tromp paths to essential destinations; tool shed, root cellar, wood stack, sledding hill, pig pen. Otherwise, the field is an untracked carpet, a massive down quilt.

I reverently watch the falling snow. The clouds settle in to a siege of the canyon then send their millions of ambassadors. I spend an entranced hour watching. Daily concerns vanish; even my connection with humanity weakens. I feel embraced and comforted.

Winter is a time for reflection. I am introspective and stay inside near light and warmth. Near the food. A lamp, a book, a guitar, theses are the implements of winter. We sip herbal teas, sometimes steeped from the peppermint we gathered in summer. We entertain a small group, serving cinnamon Rolls and hot cider. Under the grasp of cold and snow we warm ourselves with friends, wood fires and quiet reflection.

 

 

Spring

 

The days lengthen and promise spring before the weather actually makes good and delivers warmer temperatures. The north-facing slopes ooze pent-up stores of water, creating rivulets and froggy ponds where the lawn is to be. We dig trenches to divert runoff away from the house’s foundation.

As the ground underfoot begins drying, we begin to traipse the trails. At this time, brilliant Glacier Lilies emerge, a dazzling carpet at our feet. Their citrine yellow petals, delicately turning back, enliven the heart so long mothballed by winter.

The creek boils with rusty runoff. Butterflies return. I had read of Indian fathers requiring their sons to chase and capture butterflies to gain agility and endurance. I tried it but decided that agility and endurance were too expensive.

Cottonwoods perfume the air. Roadside ditches harbor frogs, snakes and a gelatinous slurry of tadpoles. Horsetail ferns are the size of a drinking straw, gradually tapered to the top and divided into stacked sections. We take them apart and try to reassemble them as necklaces and belts.

The rock chuck colony at Rock Corner comes to life. Wobbly baby moose accompany their mothers.

Rain falls for days at a time. And sometimes it is white and flaky; the ghost of winter is not fully exorcised.

Mother orders loads of sand and manure put on the garden and that fences guarding the garden be repaired. She sets out petunias and pansies. Dad hauls haying equipment to the mechanic for repairs. We clean the root cellar and wood shed. Dad removes the plastic covers, poor man’s storm windows, from the window frames. He supervises the cleaning of animal stalls. He purchases chicks from the feed store and sets up heat lamps and feeding trays in the workshop where chicks can safely spend their first two weeks.

The longer days of spring cultivate hope. Life will return; winter is not forever.

 

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