Cutting wood and tending brush as a family
September 1, 2022 | View PDF
Author's note: Life is a journey and circumstances change, as they always do. It was with bittersweet thoughts that I recently recalled this story from 10 years ago while tending a brush pile fire with my two grandchildren, rather than my husband, Gary. He moved into the Palmer Pioneer Home in February. Our daughter and grandchildren traveled from Colorado to visit us in July.
Perhaps some of the glue that holds our almost 40-year marriage together is cutting and stacking firewood and burning brush. Today after waiting out four days of rain and another four days of wind, we are burning a brush pile. Between clearing some land last spring to build a shop and a recent cutting down of brush in the road right-of-way by a borough road maintenance contractor, we have quite an accumulation.
My husband Gary and I take turns feeding the fire from the piles of spruce and birch branches and alder and willow bushes. As I sit here resting, I can't help but think of how many times we have done this before - when we were first married and childless, when we had children living at home to help, and now years after the kids have moved away.
We have moved several times over the years and in each new place we either heated with wood or had raw land to clear, sometimes both. I have mental pictures of the various locations and can hear the chainsaw cutting the firewood logs and smell the smoke from the brush fires.
For almost 15 of our nearly-40 years together, we heated totally with wood. That's a lot of cords of wood, especially during the winters we lived in Fairbanks and Slana. Cooper Landing and Palmer had milder temperatures, of course, but even in Palmer in the mid 1980s, we would usually go through eight cords of spruce and birch combined each winter.
Now, here we are back in Palmer in a new location (our fourth in the Mat-Su Valley) and we don't even have a wood burning stove installed in this house yet. But with the help of his tractor, Gary has gathered several four-foot cut lengths of round logs into a pile for future stove length cutting and splitting.
Gary has always done most of the firewood work - hauling the wood to the house, chainsawing to stove length, and splitting. Usually while he split, I stacked. Beside the good old splitting maul and wedge, he's used machinery to make the work easier. In Cooper Landing, he would drive his 1960 Willys Jeep across frozen Kenai Lake and then drag home many standing dead trees from around the shoreline. Once home, he would take one of the back wheels off and attach a threaded tapered metal cone. With the jeep in low gear and the cone spinning, he would hold a stove length chunk of log up to the point and it would screw itself into the side and split the log apart. More recently, in Slana we used a gas powered hydraulic splitter.
When the kids got old enough, they helped too. Our son reminds us that one year back in the early 1980s we paid him a penny for each piece of wood he stacked in the woodshed. He was only six years old, but he did his part. Was he proud of that fact, or was he complaining about the wages?
Sometimes we filled the various woodsheds on bright sunny summer days and others times in autumn when it was overcast and rainy. Frequently there were either mosquitoes or whitesocks buzzing and biting around us. The most enjoyable times were in mid-winter, when we bundled up and the air was cold and crisp.
Over the years, we have also gathered brush and burned it for a variety of reasons: When we needed space cleared for drilling a well or putting in a septic system or power poles or a garden plot. Other times, it was just to clean up the downed dead trees or branches from trees blown over by wind. My favorite way to gather brush was using a four-wheeler towing a small trailer, but other methods were used as well. This summer we took advantage of the borough's Firewise program. When the crew came to remove our fire hazards, I saw a chipping machine up close in action for the first time.
I can't help but think that if we hadn't moved so often, we wouldn't have needed so many brush pile fires. Our son has a theory about that. He once said, "I've figured you guys out. You buy a place, work hard for as many years as it takes to make all the improvements you feel necessary. Then, when there are no more projects, it's time to move on."
Well, he was too young when we moved to realize that we left several residences in various stages of completion, but there might be some truth to his observation.
As we sit here tending the fire, I think about other changes, too. In the early years, we seldom needed to rest and when we did, we just sat on a stump or a fallen log or anything else handy. These days we rest more than work, sitting in carefully placed lawn chairs. With the pop, hiss, and crackle of the fire in the background, we talk about important things or about nothing.
Through the years, living in all the various places, we may not spend time together sharing sports or hobbies or watching TV, but together we fill the woodshed and burn brush.
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.