Archive for January, 2015

Fireheart Mountain

Crystal Mountains

The gray predawn light urged me out of bed. Miss Nancy was still sleeping soundly so I quietly slipped, like an otter, into morning. The chilled bedroom air prodded me to quickly dress. I quietly plodded downstairs to practice my fire making skills and was soon feeding an armful of firewood into the maw of the kitchen stove.

A glance at the outdoor thermometer betrayed the reason the house carried a chill. Minus eighteen. I actually smiled recognizing the good old-fashioned January morning. I kind of miss those rigid Januarys of yesteryear.

The fire leaped into action trading BTUs for stout chunks of oak. I put water on to heat up for tea and sat down. As with most mornings, I glanced out the east window to assess the day. It’s a simple, but not infallible, way to forecast the weather. If I can spy the winter sun climbing out of the east, I am assured of a clear day for the time being. If there is no sun in view or if it is muddled, well the day will be overcast and perhaps that would mean some snow.

To my sleepy surprise I discovered a pair of similarly shaped mountains right outside the window. Was this a vision of what I wished for?

Minnesota has great diversity but we no longer have ranges of mountains, even though we do like to give ski hills and other notable humble rises the title of “mountain.” When we make our migratory trek to the Outpost in the Yukon, we are filled with daily mountain views outside our window.

The pair of mountains I contemplate on this January morning are of a similar shape of my Yukon morning view of Goat and Twin Mountain. They show the gentle age of roundness rather than craggy with tall spires.

Had my Minnesota address gone from its ancient post-glacial sandplain and erupted mutely overnight into towering mountains? Had I slept so hard I hadn’t heard the heaving and the tectonic thrusting of these twin mounts?

I didn’t rub my eyes to coax a clearer look. I couldn’t. I was transfixed.

High on the slopes the slopes of the white-covered range was covered with an otherworldly vegetation of unfamiliar feathery white limbs. I assessed the grade of the incline with keen attention towards the gradual shoulder. Perhaps it might offer me a route to the summit after a hearty breakfast.

That is if it were real. Well it was real. It’s just that it wasn’t a mountain. Instead it was the science of frost forming on the inside of my double-hung window. While it is a double-glazed window with an outside storm, the interior glass surface got cold last night behind our interior insulated cover. Consequently any indoor moisture that collects on the cold glass crystallizes. Clearly Jack Frost built these mountains.

The glowing heart of the mountains captured my attention. Through the translucent skim of ice, the surrealistic dawning glowed like a kitchen stove ember.

It seemed incongruous that this burning star could be entrapped deep inside a mountain of ice crystals. This closest of earth’s stars, the sun, known by astronomers as a yellow dwarf star, bears surface temperatures of over 10,000 °F and is over 93 million miles away.

Within reach of my alpine show was my camera. I wanted to catch the fireheart before it climbed out of the mountain’s core. I snapped a single shot and the phone rang.

I had been gone only minutes but whenI returned to the window, I was surprised to find droplets and an oak woods.  In my absence I didn’t witness the thievery of the morning dwarf star. The mountains were both gone. Had the mountains slipped into a vaporous hideout?

The power of the rising sun had quickly burned off the ephemeral art piece. It was the perfect heist.

Perhaps the real gift had been that the glowing window art had simply been a vehicle to remind me that moments slip away. The experience shows up fully and then in the next seconds it is merely history. . .a fragment of a story. This is not unlike life. I mustn’t despair over the lost phantom image, this was not a mournful morning message as much as it is a vivacious pronouncement to live each moment fully aware and with gobs of gratitude

Five minute death of Sunrise Mt.

Reading the Grain

maul in oak

With yesterday’s snow settled and temps finally edging up over zero, I decided to get a dose of sunlight by going out to cut some firewood. Another reason to brave the weather is that firewood is far easier to split when the temperatures are seriously cold. If your aim is good, the wood fairly explodes.

I bundled up, but not too much since I did not want to render myself into a ball of sweat in the frigid morning air. I loaded my splitting maul and chain saw on my sled and headed into the woods.

I had been swinging my six pound splitting maul for 20 minutes so before I rendered the next chunk of oak into fractions, I took a timeout and sat down on a piece of oak remaining whole.. Alone, I enjoyed the solitude and the sense of doing good work. I leaned over and set another chunk of oak upright for the next mauling. I scooped up a handful of clean snow and snowconed it off my mitt. As I rehydrated, I leaned over the piece of oak I had set up. The concentric growth rings were interrupted by a faint crack that zig-zagged across cut surface. That meandering fissure would be the target of my next swing of the maul.

Inspecting the grain, the cracks and irregularities in the wood carried my mind back half a century when I was initiated into the chore of splitting wood. My brother and I would hike the mile or so to our great-grandparents small farm and help with lawn mowing and other tasks. On this particular day, after we finished up our usual chores, our great grandfather asked us to follow him out to the woodshed. We made our way across the yard and slightly uphill to the old woodshed that was set on the side of the hill. The back of the shed was on the uphill side and it was open in the back so that firewood could be split and tossed easily down into the shed for storage.

Grandpa handed us an axe and proceeded to instruct us how to read the grain of the wood. “Reading the grain correctly and then hitting the axe directly on your target will make the job easier,” he growled. “You’ll wear yourselves out just hitting anywhere.”

Brother Scott and I took turns flailing at the chunk of wood  and we only managed to leave hack marks across the whole surface.

Nearby Grandpa sat perched on his own oak chunk. He leaned over and said, It’ll take som practice to consistently hit the spot you want. But you will get better.”  We swung until our arms were weary.By taking turns we could get a minor respite to wipe the sweat from our brow.

Finally we celebrated our first split piece of hardwood. The next one went slightly better. At one point I wondered if the sun was getting to Grandpa when he lamented how much he missed hard work. For a 12 year old boy, the idea of hard work was something to be avoided if possible.

Eventually we did damage both to the pile of firewood and his axe handle and I suspect we slept well that night.

Now years later I’m still splitting wood. I’m on my third maul. Grandpa has long been buried but I bet he would be proud of the scores of winters that I have piled split firewood. I can be stubborn when I am facing a big chunk of oak is nearly two feet wide. But I have learned that if you walk your well placed blows across the oak block, you will eventually be rewarded with a new tenor in the blows. Once you hear the hollow blow rather than the solid “thunk,” you know that the next blow or two will result in a mighty crack.

For me the act of splitting wood is not onerous. It gets me outside. It gets me breathing big and loosens muscles. As one friend noted years ago, you don’t need to join a health club if you put up your own firewood.

This came home to roost a dozen or so years ago when I bumped into an urban dwelling acquaintance in St. Paul. He noted that in chatting with my wife, Nancy, he learned that we heated our home with woodburning stoves. I nodded and then he puffed up, almost to prove that he could talk the talk of a woodcutter. “What kind of splitter do you have?” he asked.

Without hesitating I responded, “You’re looking at it.” His eyes went wide and he only managed a squeaky, “Really?”

There will be a day when I will say “Enough” and then we will either buy our wood or depend solely on our propane forced air furnace. In the meantime, I simply adjust the duration of the workout. My usual routine is to run one tanks worth of gas through my Stihl chain saw and then split up what I have cut. It’s a sustainable workout and it gives me great satisfaction.

Miss Nancy will sometimes split as well. She prefers the sweet little three pound Swedish Gransfors maul. I’ll never forget her first attempt at splitting a stout piece of oak. She scowled at the oak after several inconsistent blows. Staring at it, she stopped for a moment and in between her gasps of breath, she looked at me and ordered,  “Do not split this one! I’ll keep working at it. But I want to do it.”  And by God, she did it. It took her several trips out to the woods to swing at it but her persistence paid off and the oak surrendered into fragments.

I mostly do all the splitting but Nancy insists on sledding all of our wood to the woodshed from our woodlot. I keep talking about buying a small tractor or a quad to pull wood, but she insists that pulling the wood is easier in the long run and it keeps her in shape. She has literally hand-pulled many cords out of the woods.

So on this sunny January day, it actually feels like an honorable January day with the air temps dipping below zero. With the  old wood box full in the porch,, the same wood box that my great-grandparents used, stacked firewood filling a corner of the basement and two wood sheds nearly bursting at the seams with split wood, I I feel like a rich man.

wood box

Today, I get to enjoy the benefits of our labor and feel the heat of this wood twice. First from cutting, splitting and hauling and secondly from sitting in my small rocker, book in hand, in front of the pile of pulsing coals in the kitchen stove.

Thanks for the lessons Grandpa.

pile of split oak