October 1, 2013
The last posting here generated more mail than the previous three years of writing and I'm moved and grateful to all of you. I tried to answer each one but if I missed anyone I thank you now. I still have dreams running with Italian backgrounds but not quite so frequent as they were. Maybe a guy should go back there and get another dose.
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The weather in this part of the world has been as sweet as late summer can get. A mixed blessing, like most blessings. A guy who lives amongst tall trees now has few excuses to not get out and cut and split the downed old ones who have breathed their last and fallen over dead. Not to mention the youngsters cracked by random lightning or a crazyfast wind.
Mild weather means you must get off your duff and do the goodguy thing. It is the Time Of The Axe. Time to get yourself young again. Here is an action shot of what that looks like in real life:
(Not a professional model.)
That axe is a marvel of Finnish engineering, with a fine-tempered blade and precisely curved sides like an old straight razor and a neatly cut heavy hammer top; the key to its frightening cutting power is the hollow handle, beautifully shaped to the grip and light as air itself, of which it mostly is; just a thin hard mysteriously strong whistle of a grip surface. You raise it overhead and you feel the malice of the cutting head up there in the air and you whip it down and it seems detached from your main self, this high speed edge of irresistible slicepower speeding through its own deadly arc. Wow. It doesn't seem to jam into the wood as much as the grain simply parts to get the hell out of the way.
The pile is deadfall from the Broken D Ranch yard and woods. Fallen trees here aren't left to decay to become homes to nasty scurries of disgusting bugs by the billions moving in the moist darkness of rotting wood. Nor are they given a backhoe burial in some far corner of the old riding ring. Nor do we release them onto the St Croix River for the long float down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico and thence sailing out onto the Great Atlantic Ocean. Nope.
None of that. Here they are given a solemn backyard ritual cremation in the brick fire circle, the smoke mingling with aromas of bourbon and rye and to the accompaniment of quiet conversation and background Texas blues. Here the trees return their carbon to the atmosphere from whence it was drawn. Some call this a carbon-neutral exchange. That's what we call it too. Carbon neutral. The conversation may sometimes be partisan but the carbon is always neutral. And it just floats up and away, unseen.
And the cremation of an oak or box elder or fir is not a one-night ceremony. A big one needs a number of separate cremations. Kind of creepy when you think about it. Dismembered cremations.
A good fire can slow aimless chatter into modestly thoughtful dialogues. It could be that people are inwardly aware that the logs crackling there, throwing off that heat and that animated flame business, those logs are the very same ones that you could barely lift last year. They're divided now, but the total ongoing weight of that firewood before the match lights is about seventy pounds and by early morning it will weigh nearly nothing. One supposes the total atmosphere just got seventy pounds heavier.
The much-ballyhooed carbon dioxide is less than one-four-hundredth of one percent of that: .0397%. Air is 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, 0.9 percent argon; but smoke isn't so easy. I looked it up and smoke is complicated. Nobody wants to explain how seventy pounds of wood just floats off weightless like that. I plan to bring this up the next time there is a fire in the pit. See if someone knows. I'm guessing it might be the steam.
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We call this a ranch because even if the horses are gone there is still stabled some considerable horsepower here in the barn and by the shed. The rancher also has a cabin in northern Wisconsin. It's her brother's old hunting shack which became useless for whitetail deer when straightline winds flattened the county's adjoining forty acres. County came in and clearcut it and sold it for firewood. Brother moved on to denser pastures and she bought the old shack and land, along with its undamaged jackpine and big oak.
When one of those tall fellows dies the dramatic crashing death that nobody hears it lies in the woods until someone like myself -- some fool volunteer -- gets around to chainsawing the trunk and large branches into 2-foot lengths and then grunting them into a big pile, where they sit waiting for a good splitting.
The heavy dense stuff up here takes more than an axe to crack; even that Finnish axe will take all day. That's because we don't have tons of crushing power in our little earthling frames made of hollow bone and stringy meat. You bring in a rented heavy tempered-steel two-wheeled splitter with its folding vertical beam and its twenty-five tons of hydraulic crushing power (!) and it will split a pile in two hours while delivering great satisfying cracking sounds as fast as you can feed the beast.
This piece, cracked four more times, will become six sticks of firewood in less than two minutes.
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So that's what I did on two of my days off. I also took big old Hank in to get him freshly oiled and tickled, examined, kicked, greased and tested. Next week we head to New Orleans. I have danced in that city in my younger years, and walked along the sea wall and through the above-ground cemetery. Hank has never been there. I expect he'll take to the weather. And I did have the foresight to have them recharge the air conditioner.
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I have finished a marvelous book about World War II in Sicily and Italy in 1943 and 1944, titled The Day Of Battle, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; it was in my mailbox by sheer coincidence on the return from our Mediterranean cruise, from a friend in Foley, Minnesota. She said she had read about a hundred books on this subject and this was the best of all of them. It's a daunting 791 pages but 203 of them are references, credits, notes, biographies; the most thoroughly researched work I've ever seen.
I'm planning to get the other two, An Army At Dawn about the African campaign, and The Guns At Last Light, about the war from Normandy to the end. The author is a man named Rick Atkinson. He writes of sources and notes of troop movements, battles, the air war, casualties, weapons, factories, equipment, strategies, deceptions, diaries, orders, letters to wives, minutes of meetings, stories from correspondents, conversations of new recruits, actions and dialogues between troops, line officers, generals of armies and heads of states.
It is an amazing myriad of detail and destruction, all assembled into a most readable narrative. The events will likely cause you to set it down now and then from weeping which is perfectly all right of course and you won't be the only one to react that way. You find that old hard-as-nails General George Patton, and others of his rank, sometimes did the same thing.
I thought about Atkinson when I was cutting wood and about how the lives of the men and women in his book had ultimately made this simple and free country action not only possible but even somehow likely, all these sixty-eight years later.
© Russell Ringsak 2013