By David J. Hawke -
The annual January thaw is treated as a welcome reprieve from winter, an ephemeral opportunity to get into the woodlot and do a bit of work before the snow returns. The lugs on the soles of my rubber boots bite into the slush, providing traction over the wet yet still frozen layers of leaves.
The mild weather brings with it a sense of exuberance and the wheelbarrow bounces along before me, as if it's anxious to get to work. Like a parent restraining an exuberant child at the mall, I steer it around downed branches and small stumps, generally holding it on course.
This woodlot is on a steep south-facing slope, and as such receives the best that the sun has to offer. Walking here is always a challenge (unless you have one leg shorter than the other, but that's only good for going in one direction); however, with a winding track laid out across the face of the slope, we manage to enjoy the woodlot in every season.
Just ahead awaits the loosely piled stack of wood blocks, the result of last weekend's foray with the chainsaw, when wind-fallen beech and ash were cleared from the trail and bucked into manageable-sized blocks. Already the brightness of the saw-cuts has faded, making the pile seem cold and dead (which it is, but now it really looks the part). The melting snow has created tears of wetness that stain the darkened bark.
As we (the wheelbarrow and I) work our way up the slope, I take note of a set of tracks which make a slight depression in the melting crust. It would appear that a fox came by early this morning but did not tarry here as the paw prints, laid neatly in a row, come down the hill and then disappear towards the back field without interruption. Just passing through.
January is the mating season for foxes, with the males covering rather large geographic areas in search of females. The vixen will have a den site picked out, and will remain within her territory, while the roaming tod continues on his lonely trek, a ‘highwayman’ in search of adventure. One of them had his journey pass through this woodlot.
The wheelbarrow is set firmly in place by the pile and the wet blocks are loaded. Rubber gloves keep the cold slush from my fingers, but the sweat of labour soon makes the 'waterproof' design of my jacket a moot point. The blocks are loaded with care, as the weight must be forward and centred; to start off with an unbalanced load is a guarantee for disaster, and reloading wood is not an option I wish to pursue.
So down the hill we go, the wheelbarrow and I, it being anxious to roll with wild abandon down the incline while I, the more practical of the two, slip and slide behind, at times digging the legs of the barrow into the hillside to arrest its dash to the bottom. We make it, of course, but not without moments of apprehension.
Then it's across the footbridge and up the short grade to the woodpile, where all the little loads of wood are eventually gathered together and prepared for splitting. As I go back and forth, back and forth, from forest to woodpile, from woodpile to forested slope, the pile grows, slowly turning from an insignificant hump in the yard into a substantial mound of achievement.
My ongoing work is viewed with interest by the chickadees, who check out the freshly overturned leaves left behind in the woods, looking for an easy morsel of food. A red squirrel darts from maple to ash and back again, trying to determine if I am a threat or just a nuisance to his activities.
Eventually all the wood visible above the snow has been collected, so I bring forth the splitting axe and maul to reduce the larger blocks to manageable-sized sticks. A swing, a smack, and the blocks of ash seem to fall apart, such is their straight grain. The beech splits fairly well too, but at times the halves clings together in a desperate bid to stay as a whole. A few of the larger ones repel my attempts at an easy split, and demand the use of maul and sledge to break them apart.
In regards to outdoor work, there comes a point when a person should know their limit of what they can do. It's not been two hours since I began, yet my clothes are drenched, with slush from the outside and sweat from the inside. My face glows red and the hair under my toque is plastered flat. Time to ease up. I recently lost four weeks of outdoor work due to a bout with pneumonia, and I must control my enthusiasm to finish this job; if not, the job may finish me.
As I roll the wheelbarrow home, its earlier perky bounce now noticeably subdued, I reflect on my wood-gathering activity: to me it is a form of recreation, a way to get exercise, an escape from the modern-day agenda. But just a generation ago, today's activity would make the difference between a cheerfully warm house, and a deathly cold one.
The wheelbarrow is leaned against the wall, the tools wiped down and put away. It may be a while before they get used again, as the forecast is calling for snow and lots of it. That's the trouble with a January thaw, it's just a teaser, but one that is welcomed.
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