Counting Out Rhyme

Silver bark of beech, and sallow
Bark of yellow birch and yellow
Twig of willow.

Stripe of green in moosewood maple,
Colour seen in leaf of apple,
Bark of popple.

Wood of popple pale as moonbeam,
Wood of oak for yoke and barn-beam,
Wood of hornbeam.

Silver bark of beech, and hollow
Stem of elder, tall and yellow
Twig of willow. – Edna St. Vincent Millay

I should be in the woods at this time of year. Instead, because of the unusually warm winter and heavy rains that have left the ground saturated and soggy, rather than frozen and covered with snow, and because I managed to do something to my shoulder chopping wood. (I turn forty this summer, and my assumption is that the two different minor injuries I sustained in about two weeks were the official “the warranty on your body has expired and it will all go to hell now” notice.) I mostly haven’t been, but they call me. This is the season of trees on a farm.

In the dark of January and February, when the ground is hard as stone (normally) and the weather is cold, cutting wood, hauling downed braches by sled, harvesting bark for baskets and medicinal use and pruning trees are the natural works of the season, and I really enjoy them. We don’t cut most of our own wood – when we first moved here we assumed we would take all our own wood from the property, but what we found was that firewood and hay are the two most common ways for our rural neighbors to make a living, and in the end, we’d rather have the time for other things and enrich our neighbors, so those are two jobs we don’t do a lot of. Still, we put up some hay by hand every year, and we cut some of our own wood. The depredations of the hurricanes this fall mean that we’ve got a large supply of fallen wood – plenty for many years to come, so I expect I’ll do more soon.

One cuts wood for the following winter – 9 months or a year to season is a minimum, and a bit longer is better. I don’t use a chainsaw, because, frankly, I’m afraid of them – I have always been more than a little clumsy, and I like my limbs attached. The Bucksaw and the Crosscut saw are slower, but also quieter and much less likely to keep going without me if I make a mistake.

In a good year Eric and I find time to go out in the woods together – the two person cross-cut saw is an art and a pleasure to use, and it is good for a marriage. Until you master it, it can be bad for marriage too, but once you learn one another’s motions it can be deeply satisfying. Most of the time, though, it is just one of us that go into the woods to make piles of firewood that will then be sledded out.

There has been no sledding this year – in fact the pussy willows have catkins and today is supposed to hit sixty degrees. My daffodils are up and the world is convinced that spring is nigh – whether it is or it isn’t, it makes the woods harder.

Harvesting small wood for bentwood (one of Eric’s hobbies), hurdle making, basket making (which I do incredibly badly, but I try) and pruning the fruit trees are less tough on my shoulder, so most of the time I spend with wood of late is around the house. The goats and the rabbits are delighted when I bring them the trimmings from the peach and apple trees, and I the quince prunings I set in glasses of water to force into bloom.

I found pruning intimidating at first, not really grasping what it was that I was trying to do. A friend who is an old orchardman simplified it for me – he taught me to imagine what the tiny growth of this year will look like in ten, drew me pictures, and then showed me what it would look like if I made different choices – all of a sudden the idea penetrated and I was able to look and see what I wanted my trees to look like – more or less. I still pay some price for my years of not fully grasping things, but it gets better all the time.

Our property has more willow than anyone would want to shake a stick at – it is a wet piece of land, and willow grows abundantly here. We have encouraged the goats to cut back on the sumac and willow in certain areas, and we coppice the willows behind the barn – in fact, this year I’ll take our second harvest after the cutting we did 7 years ago. We have only just finished burning the willow – not great firewood, but old dry willow make a good starter – that we took off the trees the first time.

Thorny locusts are wonderful fence posts and great firewood if you can cut it – we lost two big locust trees to the hurricanes, one right by the barn, the other behind the house, and the goats and calves quickly denuded them, eating their high protein leaves. In a few weeks, after the calves are gone to the butcher, I’ll need to cut up the locusts, but it must wait until I take the fence that encloses it down.

We’re out of “tree hay” at this point – mostly locust and willow that I put up and dry on old shipping pallets for winter. The rabbits, goats and calves love it, and it is an infinitely renewable resource for us. Over time, I hope to cut more each summer to feed our herd. To do so, I also have to keep planting trees – I want plenty, and of course, we also sell some trees in the nursery business, so I check on the little dormant nursery, and then harvest willow to make willow water for rooting cuttings in late winter.

The sap is already starting to rise in the trees because of the unseasonable warmth – soon enough we’ll put up our little mite of syrup – our sugar bush is tiny, and we do it in the simplest possible way, with buckets and homemade taps, but it is a sign that winter is winding down. Ordinarily the beginning of February doesn’t mark spring at all, but simply the time when northern people and critters start to dream of spring, but this year all is early, and everything feels ready.

I still hope for some snow and ice yet – it is too early for things to move forward, and while it saves on heating fuel, it isn’t good for birds and plants to be so out of synch. Moreover, I still hope for some time in the woods yet when my shoulder mends and the sound of chickadees and the crosscut saw are the only songs in a wintry silence. If I don’t get it, though, the trees and I still have plenty to do.

This coming week is Tu B’shevat, the Jewish holiday that marks the “new year” of the trees – the date that one counts tree birthdays from. It is traditional to celebrate with the fruits of trees, mostly out of season here, but a pleasurable luxury that reminds us of days to come when we will devour piles of peaches and apricots, process baskets of apples and quinces into jars, when the fruit of trees will pour upon us in abundance, asking little, giving much. Now, in the quiet season of winter in the north, it seems that trees give little – unless of course, you go into the woods and see what there is to receive.