Features & Stories
February: The Wood-Cutters Moon?

Story and photos by Trudy Frisk

Ralph Frisk, George Hicks and Kurt Frisk getting in the winter's wood.
It's a common mistake, assuming that rural activities are identical across Canada.  A friend, recalling her childhood on the prairies, talked of cutting firewood in February.

"February?" I echoed.  "Why would you cut firewood in February? Don't you mean September?" 

She stared at me as if I'd suddenly started tearing the Maple Leaf to tatters.  "Certainly not.  On the prairies February was when people cut their firewood for three very good reasons.  The sap was down in the roots, so trees weren't full of pitch; it was easier to skid logs over snow; and, most important of all, there was very little work to do on the farm.  What better time to lay in a supply of firewood?"

I suppose she has a point but it still seems like heresy.  Even prairie people, cutting cottonwood and poplar should have held to the regular way, the way we did it in B.C.
In my experience, getting winter wood meant going out in early fall with a good lunch and thermos of tea to chop down pine and spruce.  Except for occasional anxiety as to which direction a tree might fall, it was a pleasant time, warm, leaves all colours, birds flying south.  Much better than hacking away at a frozen tree with a cold axe head ,which might fly off and smack you  as your feet and fingers froze. 

Besides, there's the anticipation of stocking the woodshed up to the roof before the cold came so you'd have something to burn all winter, not getting supplies in the middle of  the season.  What, I wondered, did those prairie people burn till February came?

I've since realized that the B.C. way isn't the only way.  A former Nova Scotian says they, too, cut their firewood in early spring.  The men weren't busy then and the firewood had all summer to dry out.

They were cutting hardwoods, of course, so the wood was split right away, before it hardened like iron.  As for those prairie cottonwoods and poplars, a wise wood cutter split them immediately too, otherwise it was like trying to cut a wet, heavy sponge.  
We B.C. woods persons were cutting dead pine and spruce, a different matter entirely.
Who knew there were such regional differences?

Some things, of course, were the same.  Rotating the wood was essential.  A really organized woodsman would have three areas; this year's wood, ready to burn; next year's wood, still curing; and wood for two years from now, newly cut, heavy, needing a lot of drying time.  In our woodshed we rotated the driest to the front, greenest to the back.  This involved climbing on wood and tossing it about, good healthy pastimes for active children.

A chip off the old block. Gordon Hicks cutting wood.
Wood cutting and storage was a family affair.  Father cut the trees down.  Older children limbed them.  Before going in the woodshed they had to be cut into stove lengths.  Nothing teaches co-operation like being half of a team on a cross-cut saw.  It's never too early to learn that you can't both pull at once.

The wood-box, too, made a direct connection between effort and comfort.  Above the fierce arguments over who filled the wood-box yesterday was the sure and certain knowledge that unless somebody got busy right after school, it was going to be a cold night.

People went to great trouble to design ingenious wood-boxes.  Ours was a cavernous structure on the front porch. But we knew of wood-boxes which could be filled from outside and emptied, stick by stick, from within the house.  No tiptoeing out on frosty days, to get wood for the fire.

Our father believed you could never have too much wood.  Not only was the woodhouse kept full, but the yard was dotted with wood piles under heavy tarps, and lumber piles, some of which he never used.  He just kept them as insurance.

Even in his later years Father cut wood every fall.  His hand wasn't quite as steady with the power-saw though.  Often our visits home, he'd bring out a pair of his wood cutting pants with saw cuts in them.  After gasps of horror, my sister-in-law quietly mended them.  We all knew there was absolutely no point, none at all, in asking him not to cut wood.  It was his buffer against the coming cold and dark.  Life might go all awry, but, if a man had a full woodshed and a good, warm fire, he could take care of himself.  He could cook and make a cup of tea for visitors.  Better than a term deposit was a big woodpile.

There was something comforting about wood heat. Sure, it had its downside; taking out the ashes, (though they made for good traction on icy walk ways), and cleaning stove pipes.  Who could forget the Sunday morning when Father, who always made pancakes for the family on Sundays, decided the pipes needed to be cleaned before he could cook?

The pipes didn't co-operate. Father, never the most patient of men, took umbrage and kicked them down the hill.  We all stayed very quiet while he tramped down the hill to retrieve them, forced them into a round shape again and hammered them back together.  The pancakes were as good as ever that morning, if a bit late.

But, I digress.  Unlike gas or oil, wood heat is warmer and more constant.  Instead of a thermostat cutting in triggering a blast of warm air from the vents, then shutting off till the house has chilled down, wood burns steadily.  Even when the logs are consumed, the hot fire- box still radiates a gentle, enveloping heat for a long time.

The ability to select the correct log to burn all night in a heater with the damper turned down came with experience.  Our parents, Father particularly, could put on a piece of wood that would still be hot coals next morning.

And the cook stove: was there ever a more versatile piece of equipment?  Any stew needing to simmer was put on the back of the stove, away from direct heat, where it
 could bubble for hours.  Mittens were hung to dry on top of the stove and boots put behind it. A crock- pot might replace the back of the wood stove, but nothing can replace the oven.  Once you got to know your stove, and they all had their individual quirks, it baked or roasted to perfection.  And, you could put your feet in the oven to warm up when you came in from the cold outside, or before going to bed.  (Provided there wasn't a batch of bread baking.)

It was companionable: a kettle boiling, a pot of stew simmering, the smell of burning wood, each wood with its own distinctive scent.  The wood stove gave warmth, food, and comfort. It was truly the center of the home in a way that a gas furnace or electric stove can never be.

Granted, I'm glad to be able to leave my house for hours and not fret that it'll turn into a cinder or snow cone while I'm gone.  That gas furnace is a blessing.  But, I can't warm my feet in its oven.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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