“A big tree standing holds potential and optimism and renewal. A big tree fallen holds loss and history and a finality.”
We never take standing trees. In a standing tree there is wonder and beauty and wildness. There is majesty and history and timelines and bloodline. We let them be, the standing trees. We wait for the windfalls. We wait for the storm-fallen oaks. They will fall, given time.
Given time and given storm and given wild winds trees will fall. We will take those. We will take them for firewood. We will take the big oaks that have stood for the years, which have grown stout at the base and wide at the heights. The big trees define the woodlot, give it substance and might, rise tall and proud and firm, grow mighty and stand in grandeur until a crazy west wind charged with power and chaos comes on the rise and then, in a terrible moment, the tree falls.
Why they fall after years – no, after decades, why they fracture and fall on that one wind, that single storm, why they fall at that particular time we will never know. For a tree to grow tall takes time, takes years, takes a generation and in that span of time the tree sees storms and feels the push of wind and it stands, stands and grows and reaches higher. For a tree to grow wide at the base and tall in the trunk takes decades and in that time the tree does not crack, does not yield to countless storms.
Until it does. Until the howl of storm on a given afternoon or night comes in a fury and a force and then, only then, does the tree falter and fail and fall. It falls in the darkness of day turned to night, falls in the flash of lightning, falls in the scream of the gale, falls, falls, falls to the earth from where it came.
I walk my land in the days after storm and look for the oaks come down. I hope I do not find them for in their fall I feel a sadness. A big tree standing holds potential and optimism and renewal. A big tree fallen holds loss and history and a finality. I do not want to find them but when I do I mark the spot; firewood.
A year ago an August storm rose as in anger and fury and raged across the land and in the aftermath I walked the hills and found oaks downed; six of them, then two more and over the rise another three. Red oak, big at the stump, heavy in the trunk, tangled now at the fallen crown. They were down a slope; it would be a chore to move them up and out.
I made a liar of the man who said firewood warms you twice, once when you cut it, another time when you burn it. Those big oak warmed me when I hauled the chainsaw from truck to downed tree. I was warmed when I wrestled saw to tree trunk, warmed when I carried the oak bolts up the hill to stack them over winter. I broke a sweat when I loaded the truck, again when I unloaded them and piled them up.
I was warmed when I turned the cut bolt upright and swung the splitting maul in an arc that started high as a sapling stands and thundered at the downside of the arc into the circle of the upright oak. Warmed again when I stacked the splits, one by one, into the firewood shed I’d built (warmed with that effort as well).
The Swedish-built maul cleaved the wood; the air held the sour scent of damp oak, russet brown/orange in the summer light. The grain was straight and pure and each split piece held a beauty of wood.
I never did what I thought I should do which is to study the cut trunk and count the rings and tally up the years it stood. I never did that. It would bring only a sterile number to a ledger. Better, I think, to consider the tree that stood in strength and majesty that is not measured by numbers but by heart.
I split the wood. Maul met wood; the whole of log sheered, became fragmented. The summer breeze cooled the sweat on my brow. It was good work.
In time the splits will dry. In time the wood will lose the life blood of the sap that held it. In time the wood will be ready to burn. And at that time I will be warmed again, by the heat of burned oak, well seasoned, aged and dried and ready for the spark. I will sit by the wood stove on a chill November night and the fire will crack and hiss and the glass door of the stove will show ruby red embers.
Outside snow will fall and the wind will sound but inside the fire will comfort me and the oak again will warm me.
In the cold of November I will be warmed by the fallen trees of August storm. One more time.