Archive for March, 2017

The Gym Out Back


I’ve never joined a gym or workout club. Part of the reason is that I don’t have the time. You might ask, “No time for physical fitness?”

Nancy and I have intentionally leaned into a lifestyle that requires us to move and exert our bodies. In spring, summer and fall we garden, push a lawn mower, bicycle, hike and canoe.

In the winter we play pickleball once in a while or head to the basement for a spinning cycle workout but mostly this is the season where we merge fitness and creating wealth.

I know some of the neighbors raise an eyebrow when they see us manually shoveling snow from our 300-foot driveway. No stink of gasoline fumes, no noise, just the push-push rhythm of the snow scoop and the welcome thump of a working heart.

According to a recent article in the New York Times on brain health, the author shared, “Exercise also, and perhaps most resonantly, augments adult neurogenesis, which is the creation of new brain cells in an already mature brain.” Consistently research is showing that exercise is far better for an aging brain than crossword and Sudoku puzzles.

In our winter gym out in the woods behind our house, we team together to put up firewood. In recent years oak wilt disease has killed a number of mature trees on our property. If the standing dead tree poses no threat, we let it stand and dry out on its own. Usually within a few years it falls on its own and I don’t have to worry about dropping it. Then I fill up my trusty Stihl chainsaw and chunk up the trees, one gas tank at a time.  I have learned that limiting myself to burning one tank of gas per day is good for both my body and the chainsaw. Then I always split what I cut before I head back to the house.

We have two splitting mauls. One is a 40-year-old Craftsman with a 6-pound head and the other is a newer Swedish Gränsfors weighing in at 3 pounds. It’s Nancy’s favorite and a thing of beauty. The two of us can make a pile of wood pretty efficiently with no gasoline required. When gnarly, forked chunks of oak won’t split, we recruit hefty steel wedges. Repeated blows to the wedge with the hammer end of the maul head forces the oak apart. Two of those old wedges are mushroomed from years of pounding blows as both my grandfather and great-grandfather used them.


Nancy has turned into a black belt wood splitter. It hasn’t always been that way. I remember the first time she tried it. I demonstrated how to read the grain of the wood in the piece you are about to split. “Look for cracks to guide your blows and avoid grain that is swirling or where a branch emerged from the piece.” I explained that these are tough and will not reinforce your quest for success. Such resistant pieces are the equivalent of adding a bunch of extra weight onto a set of barbells.

“Hitting the piece consistently and walking your blows across the surface in a straight line will make the job easier.”

I set up a hefty round of red oak, and she began raining blows all over the surface of the piece. It was ugly but I knew better not to come to the rescue. After several minutes of working up to some serious huffing and puffing, she paused, glared at me and in between deep recovery breaths she ordered, “Do not. . . split this one. . . .This one. . . is mine. . . I might not. . . get it today. . .but I will . . . get it.” And we walked home for supper.

Seven afternoons later, the mangled piece of oak gave up and fell apart. I’ve always wondered, what is the difference is between perseverance and stubbornness? Nancy’s victory whoop could have been heard across the township.

Splitting wood burns 400 to 500 calories per hour. Most assume that raising and hurrying a maul down into a chunk of wood is all about arm strength. Wrong. It is a great abdominal workout. Good core strength equates to a stronger back which allow me to keep up with the backwoods workout.

I do the bulk of the splitting. Nancy hauls all the wood and stacks it in our woodsheds. She relishes loading up the wheelbarrow and snaking it through the woods, sometimes up to three hundred yards.

Her wheelbarrow trails become nice single track mountain bike trails over the snowless months.

When there is too much snow to push a wheelbarrow, Nancy uses the heavy- duty sled we employ for hauling winter camping gear into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. A few months ago I asked her, “Think we should buy an ATV to fetch wood?”

“No, I love the workout.

Not only are we saving real dollars, getting a workout but also we are heating our home without burning fossil fuels. When we’re gone for extended periods, the propane furnace is our backup. We work hard at keeping our energy footprint down.

While wood burning does release carbon, it is carbon that was already in the biosphere and not carbon sequestered for millennia under the earth’s crust. For clarity’s sake the biosphere is the area where life exists on the planet; roughly from a half-mile below the earth’s surface to perhaps as high as 30 miles above us.

Admittedly there is some particulate matter released during our wood burning but our two stoves, the one in the kitchen and one in the basement are both low-emission, EPA-certified stoves and we used seasoned firewood.

After a recent wood cutting workout, we retreated to the house for a relaxing 45-minute sauna. After showering, we sat in our old rocking chairs that sit barely an arms length away from the kitchen wood burning stove. Mesmerized by the dance of flames and glowing embers through the glass door, Nancy sipped her glass of wine and said, “I love days like this.” She sipped again, smirked and added, “It’s like printing money.

Strife in the Woods

The toothy snarl was frozen in place. On the shoulder of the road, the raccoon sprawled like a summer hound. Except this ring-tailed animal was dead.

I guessed by its size that it was a male, just like the three other dead raccoons I passed this week. Each of them was duped by tepid February temperatures rather than bawdy female raccoons. In a normal year male raccoons in Minnesota, stirred by mating urges, emerge from dormancy before the females in early to mid-March.

Two days earlier I overheard someone at the grocery store titter, “I love this gorgeous weather!” And while it might have felt good to forego gloves and a stocking cap, there is a dark side to it. Could it be that we are on our way to a fourth consecutive warmest year on record?

While not true hibernators, raccoons experience a sluggish state of dormancy called carnivore lethargy. Their vital functions do not plummet as in true hibernators like woodchucks, frogs or bats. The raccoon idles through winter mostly sleeping but with its metabolism easing along rather than put on hold.

Last fall, while their fur coats thickened, raccoons were accumulating as much fat in their bodies as they could. Fat is winter fuel. With the approach of cold and snow, raccoons make their way to winter quarters which can include hollow trees, abandoned buildings or even attics.

Over the course of an Upper Midwest winter, a sleeping raccoon can lose up to half its body weight. When it leaves its winter den earlier than normal, it burns some of its valuable fat reserves. Foraging for food in February is difficult and compromises their health.

Native Americans referred to each month as a moon. The second month of the year was known as the “hunger moon.” By this time food and fat reserves are running low. A “false spring” that activates denning raccoons jeopardizes their survival.

Not only are humans the most numerous species of mammal on the planet, we are clearly the most adaptable. We can live comfortably in the desert or on the ice pack at the poles. While we may celebrate a nearly tropical February we must consider the ramifications on other plants and animals.
I drove away from the stiffened raccoon. A pair of crows watched from the top of a tamarack tree just down the road. While the untimely warmth hastened this raccoon’s death, the cold flesh will provide calories for the survival of scavengers.