Would wood that could become the lost cord?

Melvyn Magree

I had planned to write this third column about wood last week, but the latest blasphemies of ISIS led me to compare them to the blasphemies of other established religions.

I did have what I thought was a better title for this article, but, as too often happens, I didn’t write it down. Like the lost chord, it disappeared.

Other than climbing two trees, one of my earliest memories of wood is from eighth grade. The Cleveland public schools required boys to take wood shop, metal shop, and printing. I remember a bit of each of these classes, but it is only from wood shop that I have a tangible, functional memory. I built a two-shelf bookcase from walnut. Other than occasional waxing and once re-gluing its joints, we still have it holding books in our dining room. How many kids can afford to buy walnut today?

At one time, my dad had forty acres outside Cleveland that was mostly woods. He thought he would sell some of his black walnut, hoping to make a tidy profit. He cut down a few on the side of a ravine, but he couldn’t get anyone to haul them up. I never did follow up with my half-siblings on what happened to the logs.

I also remember my dad sitting in a kitchen chair at a gasoline-powered splitter. He went through quite a pile of wood in short order. I think he may have been in his late sixties then. But a few years later he went to gas heat. It was part of his deal with a company building a gas transmission line through his property. When I split wood by hand in my mid-seventies, I think of his “ease” at the task.

But trees are not always so benign. A year doesn’t seem to pass without at least one front-page picture of parked cars severely damaged by fallen trees.

When I was in junior high, a tornado struck parts of Cleveland. One of the areas was where I had had a paper route. I don’t know what damage it caused, but decades later, some of those streets didn’t have any of trees that I had passed under on my route.

A few years ago our daughter and her husband took their SUV to a dealer for some service. When the dealer had completed the service, they parked it outside, right under a tree. A branch broke on the tree and did some serious damage to the roof of their SUV.

Every once in a while when we go to our cabin in Brimson, we have to cut apart trees that have fallen across our drive or one of our paths. We have been fortunate that any trees down across the road to and from our cabin have been cut up by somebody else before we got to them.

In Brimson, it is a question of cutting up downed trees versus cutting down trees. We have so many downed trees that we really don’t need to cut any live trees for firewood. We have so many downed trees that we will never get to many of them. In fact, there are probably enough downed trees within ten feet of our paths that I will not to have to cut much brush to get to them.

We spent part of the last two weekends cutting up a pair of trees that have been down for three years. Most of the wood was nice and dry, but when I split some of it, it was filled with caterpillar tunnels or was rotted. The tunneled wood we certainly won’t bring back to Duluth; the rotted we piled in the fire ring.

Our efforts rewarded us with enough wood to keep us toasty through the night for at least four weekends at the cabin.

The far better wood for heating is birch, but we would have to wait a couple of years for it to dry out. As I mentioned in an earlier column, birch is a “weed.” It just pops up without any help from us. One birch that I cut years ago had another growing right next to it. The stump of the previous birch has rotted, and the current one is large enough for firewood. Many of the birch trees are big enough that splitting them in half would make good firewood. The problems are getting enough burnable wood for now, making sure that we have a clear space for them to fall, and being at our cabin with enough time to cut them down and split them.

Remember how we were disappointed about all the dying birch when we bought the property over twenty years ago? Well, the remains of many of those dead birches are still useful. We have many tubes of birch bark still around. Take a sharp knife, cut in a few inches, tear off, and clean up. A handful of birch bark is the best fire starter of all. One of the locals who did some work for us said that birch bark is just like fuel oil. If we don’t have a lot of snow in the next few weeks, maybe we can harvest enough old birch bark to last us through the winter.

Mel thinks three articles on trees is enough for now.  He promises not to write about trees for the rest of the year.