Growing up in Portland, Oregon, I experienced a relatively limited palette of seasons. Basically, there were three. There was the season of wet and cold, followed by wet and warmer, with a brief interlude of hot and dry. You knew that summer had arrived when the sun so baked the concrete, you danced your bare feet across the gritty pavement as fast as you could to the respite cool of the nearest lawn strip, and when sweat from the tanned length of legs unprotected by your shorts made you stick, instantly, to the vinyl backseat of the car. Winter announced its arrival when the chill of the same blue vinyl seats would take your breath away even through the thickness of your coat. You could hear the change of seasons in the sound of the traffic : a hushed hiss and splash or thrumming, spiced occasionally by the fleeting sounds of radios through open windows, and the thwack of rubber tires hitting the cracks.
In contrast, rural Vermont boasts a traditional, calendar-worthy full quartet of seasons, with a bonus fifth thrown in. Mud season: The brief weeks between the end of full-on winter, and budding spring, when the knee-deep, sloppy slurry of unpaved back roads can swallow small cars. Too early for leaves, and dressed in a grey weariness left behind by melted snow, mud season is the only Vermont season without much to love. And yet, it is during mud-season is when maple sap runs and drips, and is boiled down for its own sweet reward.
Vermont winter is LONG. It pummels, powders, and freezes until even snow lovers like me despair of the cold and shoveling the drive one. more. time. But relent it does, giving way to mud season, followed by chartreuse springs, firefly summers, and crisp, sweater day falls, times that make it hard to conjure up the slightest memory of winter’s bite…until the wood arrives, like today.
Dan dumped the load in the middle of the drive on the hottest day of the year so far. A day smelling of just- baled hay and the last of the peonies. Herb and I had awoken this morning thinking this was the day we had been waiting for. “We’ll tackle the big yard project”. You see, we inhabit an ancient house. Upkeep of the grounds, until our arrival has been an affair never high on previous absentee owner’s agendas. Each year we spend several days reclaiming the bank and forested hillside from the tangle of wild roses, escaped barberry, impossible vines, and too crowded saplings. But the early morning email announced our change of plans. Wood.
Dan arrived on schedule, and after the obligatory Vermont chat in the road about our kids, the neighbor’s kids, the weather, town doings (or not doings), waving the few cars to come on and drive around, Dan dropped the first load. Two cords. Split. Mixed hardwoods.
A freshly dumped wood pile is overwhelming. It looms nearly shoulder-high and its jumbled outline covers significant real estate. “Gloves?”, Herb asked. “Yep”, I replied. I learned the hard way our first stacking season. Even garden calloused hands are no match for wood stacking without some sort of protection.
It’s hard getting started. My older muscles complain. My older hands tattle my age. It’s more difficult to palm the ends of pieces of a certain size. But soon we find our rhythm. Herb and I pass companionably with each armful, lift, tote, stack. Each piece settled down into a just right spot. The biggest pieces build the end tower. We toss the smallest with the kindling. Smooth birch, rough barked maple. Lift, tote, stack. Early laughter settles into comfortable silence, broken only when one of us pinches a finger, drops a log on our toe. We break for a drink, then soldier on. The sun moves, but it seems the wood pile barely shrinks.
Wiping more sweat off my brow, I think, “A fire? Are you kidding? Who was the idiot who said Wood heats twice. Like it needs to be hotter today!” Lift, tote, stack.
In the rhythm of this work my mind begins to wander. Twenty -two times we have completed this task. I smile at the thought. Herb’s eyes smile back. Memories settle into their just right place, each season, our life…. until our task is finished. Lift, tote, stack….rest.
We eat supper late. I take one last look at the tidy rows of wood lining the breezeway. The thermometer reads 80 degrees, I watch a firefly carry its tiny lantern across the night, and head inside. Herb and I share a bottle of wine and watch a movie, before turning in, to the whir and tick of the fan, a failed attempt to find cool. The house settles and slumbers too, tucked into its hillside of ledge. Winter’s chill will come, but for now remains a distant dream.