Rekindling a Tradition of Stacking Wood
When I see folks splitting and stacking wood this time of year, it always makes me think of my dad. Back when he was a kid, they did all their cooking and heating with wood, and he spent most of his childhood splitting, stacking, and hauling wood, to hear him tell it. He swore he’d never do it again, so we didn’t have a wood stove growing up. And Charlie and me don’t either, though we have a generator, in case the power goes out.
Dad is almost eighty, and still has recurring dreams of stacking wood with his dad, my grandfather George. Now, there was a true, old school woodsman. George meticulously split wood into three sizes: kindling, cook stove, and heat stove. And he’d stack that wood straight as a die, with no spaces between. Try as he might, dad could never get it quite right, so seventy years later, he’s still practicing, in his sleep!
See, George was a lumberjack most of his life. My dad told me, in the early 1920’s or late teens, his father and alot of loggers used go into the woods for the entire winter. They’d come back out again in the spring, just before the ground thawed. Then, once the ice was out of the river, George and the guys would drive those logs down the Kennebec to the sawmills in Madison. It was rugged, dangerous work, all done by hand, and that water was some frigid, let me tell you.
In the early years of their marriage, my grandmother, Georgiana, would go into the woods with my grandfather for the winter. They’d pack everything into a big, horse-drawn sled — everything they’d need for the next three or four months — and go.
And they had two small children at the time: Ralph, who was a toddler, and a baby, Lillian. My grandmother would ride in the sled, on top of the supplies, with Lillian in her arms, while my grandfather walked behind. There was too much on the sled for him to ride, too. He carried Ralph in one of those old wicker knapsacks, the very same knapsack I bring out every Christmas, and decorate with fur boughs and a red bow.
God, it must have been hard for my grandmother, isolated like that in the woods all winter long! She lived in a little cabin with a dirt floor. Can you imagine? Month after wintery month in a drafty cabin, with two kids playing on the dirt floor: no medical care, no books to read, hardly any other women to talk to, day after day. Cooking on a tiny wood stove. Melting snow to do laundry. Her only luxury was the square of wood my grandfather built for her to put her rocking chair on.
Boy, these people were tough! Legend has it, my grandfather George used to cut three cord of wood per day with a buck saw. Everyday. He knew how to pace himself, though. He’d work for an hour, then sit down, smoke a cigarette and file his saw. An hour on, ten minutes off, all day long. He had a smooth, steady stroke, “like a good golf swing,” my father says.
Sometimes, in the evenings, my dad would see his father sitting there with eyes half closed. He’d ask him what he was thinking. And George would say, “L’arbre demain. Y’est pas bon. J’pense à comment j’vas l’abattre.” (Bad tree tomorrow. I’m thinking about how I’m going to drop it.)
George quit lumbering as soon as they switched to chain saws. Those mechanical contraptions just scared the bejesus out of him.
Whenever Charlie and me drive along the Kennebec River, especially in the spring, I think of my grandfather. I can just picture that river filled shore-to-shore with logs, and George in a flannel shirt, wool pants and spiked boots scampering across them, as sure-footed as if he was walking down the street.
That’s it for now. Catch you on the flip side!
(Listen to the podcast of Ida's column here.)