The Wood Tossing Game

Conal’s late father, Bob, told me that he delighted in keeping every penny he could out of PG&E’s hands by using wood for heating purposes. One of my favorite memories of Bob is spending an afternoon with him running the wood splitter, a fascinating machine that splits logs with a wedge, slowly but with incredible force. There is a lot of wood available here at Murray Creek, what with trees and branches falling regularly, and Bob spent a good deal of time and energy gathering, cutting, splitting, stacking, and moving wood from one pile to another. A lot of work goes into cheating PG&E!

I’m learning. Wood around here is mostly in the form of oak and pine. Pine lights easy and burns hot. Oak is the denser of the two, is harder to light, and burns longer. You get a fire roaring with kindling and pine, then add long-burning oak for lasting toastiness.

Also, wood isn’t ready to just lob into the stove the minute it’s fallen. “Green” wood (that which is still living or recently felled) doesn’t burn well since it still has a high water content. We recently cut down a tree that was too close to the house and I was amazed to see the amount of water bubbling up out out of the stump. Logs have to be “seasoned” in order to have time to dry out and be suitable for fuel. Bob said that it takes a year for wood to be properly seasoned. He had a system of piles that sorted kindling and small pieces from big logs, pine from oak, and seasoned from green. Wood was collected, cut, split, sorted, and then rotated through the various stacks until it finally ended up in a box in one of the houses, ready to go into the wood stove.

It should be pointed out that the body heat generated by all this industry is also an excellent way to warm up on a chilly day.

Conal’s younger brother Joseph and older brother Willie are at Murray Creek this weekend working away on the to-do list for the family property next to Conal and mine, a large part of which is preparing wood for the upcoming cold season. The three of us fired up the wood splitter and cracked apart some monstrous green log sections that were the remains of a dying tree that had to be cut down a few weeks ago. It was a grand, craggy old oak, but was a potential house-squisher and sadly had to be taken down. We also split some seasoned wood and stacked it near Ann’s house for her to burn this winter.

Joseph, Willie, and I discovered there were three clear areas of responsibility in the splitting operation: one person to haul wood from the pile to the splitter and remove the split pieces, another stationary at the splitter to feed wood into it, and a third to control the machine. Seeing as how there were three of us, this proved to be a very efficient set up. The duties of the person controlling the machine consisted of moving a lever up and down, so that was pretty much the gravy job. I drew that one first. I think the guys were being sweeties, as usual. I decided to finesse the job, doing my utmost to tune in to what the feeder person needed. I enjoyed raising the wedge only as far as necessary for the particular piece of wood and bringing it down at just the right moment, maximizing time and fuel efficiency (and making it more fun). After a bit, Joseph and Willie switched jobs and I continued to work on my tan and operate the lever. When both Joseph and Willie were good and sweaty, I asked Willie if he would like to switch and I moved to the hauling job. This proved to be excellent timing, as shortly thereafter I noticed the machine begin hemorrhaging pnuematic oil rather alarmingly. We shut it down pronto. I swear on my life I had nothing to do with the breakdown. We’re hoping it just got too hot and that there will be a miraculous healing overnight.

Willie went off to buy more oil, and Joseph and I commenced stacking the rest of the green wood, which was in a tangled pile of pieces of every size and shape. This inevitably led to my favorite game with wood: tossing logs with Joseph. He’s an excellent throw and I catch rather well, so we make a good team. He’d toss a couple of arm-sized pieces at the same time, and I’d catch one in each hand and plunk them down in the appropriate section of our new, size-segregated stack. Then he’d lob a big one that would be a two handed maneuver. Sometimes the big ones were rather heavy, and I ended up doing more of an assist, slowing down and guiding the flying piece onto the pile without actually trying to catch it. Extra glory for maintaining a conversation in a smooth, uninterrupted fashion throughout.

There’s lots more to do, and we’ll be at it again in the morning. I’ll say my prayers tonight that the splitter will have had a good rest and be willing to split lots more wood, because you know what that means: more opportunities for wood tossing! Yay!

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