Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Splitting wood rightly


When we first moved into a house with a wood-burning fire, I needed to get and prepare the wood, but knew only what I had seen in movies. Through reading and consulting neighbours, I learned the basics of felling trees – either invasive species on our property, or wood that could be coppiced or pollarded and would grow back – and then to dry the logs and saw them into blocks. Finally, I tried chopping the wood the way I’d seen people do it on television, taking an axe and swinging it down full force, but it took a lot of work, and the thin blade often got stuck. Pulling it out seemed like getting Excalibur out of the anvil, and most of my attempts yielded slapstick results that I’m glad were not being filmed.

Eventually, though, an elderly neighbour stopped by and gave me a bit of advice: you don’t chop wood with an axe, as you see in movies. You split wood, with a maul.

The thin, sharp blade of an axe, I discovered, is designed to chop across the wood fibres, as when you’re chopping down a tree. Hitting a tree trunk over and over in the same place cuts the lignin fibres above and below, knocking out chips and creating the familiar V-shaped incision. Axes are also lighter, about two kilograms, as you have to put all your muscle into the swing and don’t have gravity to help you.  

A maul looks similar to an axe, but has a longer handle and a wider, heavier metal blade – wider so it doesn’t get stuck, and heavier so it comes down with more force. A maul’s wide, blunt blade is made to cut in the same direction as wood fibres, as when splitting logs for firewood; trying to cut down a tree with a maul is about as effective as doing so with a sledgehammer. Mauls usually weigh about four kilograms to carry more momentum in the swing; you’re swinging in the direction of gravity, so the weight becomes an advantage and not a liability.

Once you realise their purposes, their handles also make sense. An axe’s handle is great for swinging sideways, but swing it down and you risk hitting your legs. A maul’s longer handle hits the log with more force than an axe can, and if you miss, you just hit the ground.

To split wood, wear safety goggles if you can, although I’ve worn just my glasses in a pinch. Do wear something, though, as splinters can fly everywhere. Wear gloves that fit and can grip the handle.

Take a log of about 20-to-50 centimetres long – any longer than that and you want to cut it again with a saw before you try to split it. Check for knots – you can have some, but position the log so your blows avoid them as much as possible. If it already has small cracks, try to cut in the direction of those.

Put the wood you want to split onto a stump, or onto the ground – but not onto stone or pavement, lest you miss and get shards of stone and metal flying everywhere. Stand with your legs apart slightly, with one farther back than the other, like you’re taking a step forward.  If the maul won’t split a stubborn piece of wood, you can get a few wedges, inserting them into the log in the cuts your maul made, and then hitting them with a sledgehammer. 

I wait until my logs are dried before splitting them, but ours are lilandia trees in the pine family – other types of wood, I’m told, are easier to split green. Most woods need to be dried at least six months before they can be burned in the fireplace, and preferably nine. By the way, we only cut our lilandia trees, which were numerous and overgrown on our property and are an invasive species, or woods that we can coppice or pollard and that grow back quickly, like willow. I find that wood seems to split more easily in cold weather, although it might just be in winter that I’m especially motivated to get it cut fast.

In any case, splitting wood this way on cold days keeps you warm twice; once from the exercise you get, and then in the evenings when you curl up by the fireplace with a good book.

 


Saturday, 17 March 2018

You left the doors open


This is from an interview I did several years ago with a Mr. and Mrs. Hedemann of Dublin, part of my project of interviewing elderly people here. 

Me: One thing I wondered was that, in areas that were very poor, what kind of crime took place? These days, when times are getting leaner in my own country, a lot of small towns that used to be very prosperous are now destitute, many people are paranoid about security. 

Mrs. Hedemann: In Ireland you left the doors open. I remember as a child, going to Mass in the country when I was a small child, no one locked their doors.

Mr. Hedemann: And the churches themselves were open 24 hours a day. No one would ever think of pinching anything from a church. The doors were open all the time.

Me: Why do you think there was so little crime?

Mr. Hedemann: We’re an honest people, and everybody knew everybody anyway, particularly in the country.

Mrs. Hedemann: It wasn’t something you did; it would be a very strange occurrence.

Me: I mean, was it more that children were raised with a different set of values, or that everyone knew each other, or that no one had anything to take?

Mr. Hedemann: I think the last two, everybody knew everybody and nobody had anything.

Mrs. Hedemann: Nobody had much, but no matter how little you had, everybody had something of some value, even if only kitchen utensils.

Mrs. Hedemann: There was just an ethos; people just weren’t that way. But Ireland was virtually crime-free around 1900; I remember seeing the statistics. Virtually crime-free. It would be absolutely astonishing to people today. You had the odd murder coming up, but these were all crimes of passion. Certainly there were no drugs, which is the bane nowadays.

Me: You would have drinking, of course.

Mrs. Hedemann: Oh yes, they’d hold up the bar at the pub as long as they could till closing, or whatever. We couldn’t imagine I locking the door, or being afraid – you just couldn’t imagine it. Even in Dublin.

Me: Do you feel that if communities that are wealthy today became poorer, that crime would go down again?

Mrs. Hedemann: I think it might; it’s a good point. There is a thing that happens when people are together in privation. A community spirit grows, as grew in England during the war. People really pulled together; the traditional English reserve disappeared, and people talked to each other buses, perfect strangers helping each other. It digs into some deep human thing. Whereas once there is wealth, there is automatically separation and gradation.

The conversation turned to the social life they once had. Mrs. Hedemann: [Irish winters] are long, and depressing if you allow yourself to be depressed. The Irish would gather in the farmhouse and tell stories. The Irish are quite good at telling stories, whether they’re true or not is another matter.

Mr. Hedemann: Article 27 of the Irish constitution says that you shouldn’t spoil a good story for the sake of the truth.

Mrs. Hedemann: It was huge in the country; there was an institution called cortorach, Irish for visiting, and the people would visit each other’s houses and have dances and do the reels and the Irish dancing. and the women would drink tea and the men would drink porter. And they would have a seannachai (pronounced shanakee) – a storyteller – and he’d be spinning great yarns and tales, some of them the old, old stories. Some of them might be two thousand years old, really stories from prehistory -- stories of Kilcullen and Meave, stories from long long ago. Seana is the Irish word for old, so seannachai was telling the old stories....

Me: Would these storytelling events be regular? Would they be, say, once a month, once a week?

Mrs. Hedemann: Oh, good Lord -- at least once a week at least, and nearly every night at times. You can imagine it, the kitchen and the big open fire and the kettle on the crane – they called it a crane, the thing that brought over the kettle or the pot for the potatoes across the fire. Blackened, with a fire under it.

Me: A turf fire?

Mrs. Hedemann: A turf fire, and very warm, and the people gathered around listening to the seannachai telling his story. A lot of ghost stories, as the Irish are really into ghost stories. And the children were supposed to go to bed but were allowed to stay up, and would listen to the seannachai, their eyes wide like saucers. ... There would be poetry in English and Irish, and you’d have song, and a fiddle and perhaps a piper. Of course pipes were very expensive, and the English cut the hands off the pipers and hanged the harpists during the 18th century. Piping nearly died out here. It was Leo Rowsome was responsible for bringing it back. You always had a fiddler; you nearly had one in every family.

Mr. Hedemann: There was a great sense of community, of warmth, of laughter, of fun. There still is, I think, if you strip back the layers.

Mr. Hedemann: One thing I love about Ireland is the craic. You say something absurd, and other people see if they can say something more absurd to top you. If you do that in, say, Germany, people would be worried for your mental health.

Mrs. Hedemann: The funny thing is people were happier, in a way because the human connection was so heartfelt and so strong. This is a secret thing of the human psyche; we need real relationships, with other people.
 

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Still snowbound


Seeking a change of atmosphere, I walked a few kilometres to the village this afternoon – not a difficult walk ordinarily, but more so in deep snow. Along the way I met my neighbour Caoihme (pronounced Queeva), walking down the bog roads to call on her neighbour, while her daughters were laughing and throwing snowballs with other neighbourhood teenagers a respectful distance behind.

“How’re you fixed for supplies?” I asked. We were well stocked for dried and tinned goods, and had enough vegetables to see us through these days when everyone was snowed in and the store shelves empty.

“We’re grand,” she said. “We have all kinds of supplies in the shed, chickens for eggs and neighbours to trade with – but not a drop of milk to be had for tea.”

“That’s what I’m going to see about in town,” I said. “Perhaps they’ve cleared the roads a bit.”

“Ah, I doubt it,” she laughed. “I sent Seamus (her husband) to the shop the other day to find anything that hadn’t been picked clean. He came back with a piece of cake and a potato.”

“Well, if they don’t have milk,” I ventured, “I wonder about Tommy’s cows? Do you think he milks them?” We have enough neighbours who raise cows, I thought, it seems a shame to let such a resource go to waste.

“Ah, I think he raises them for meat,” she said. “And none would have calves that had been weaned recently. You can try, but I wouldn’t go rooting around down there myself.”

We walked on a bit, saying hello to neighbours along the way and admiring their giant snowmen or other sculptures, and she checked on the horses along the way to make sure they looked healthy and fed. We talked about getting our families outdoors, and that drew us into talk of footing turf this year in the bog.

Turf, also called peat, is the remains of centuries of moss and other vegetation that built up in the bogs, which built up over the millennia when the submerged lower strata did not fully decompose. Draining the bog and pulling back the top layer of vegetation reveals black and spongy bio-mass that turns reddish-brown and hard when it dries, and creates a slow-burning, smoky fire when lit. For hundreds – probably thousands – of years it has been the main way people in this cold country kept warm. The smell of burning turf is one of the most distinctive things about this land, and in country homes and pubs alike here neighbours gather around turf fires in the winter evenings.

Most farmers who lived anywhere near a bog had a ready source of fuel for the winter, once they pulled away the top layer of vegetation and exposed the peat underneath. Farmers here – everyone was a farmer of course, whatever else they did – carried special shovels shaped like one corner of a square, made for sinking into sides of a ditch and scooping out long rectangles of peat.

These days, the cutting is done by tractor, leaving long ropes of black and moist turf like liquorice, partly cut at intervals of a foot or two. While machines can cut the turf, though, humans still need to dry it by hand, “footing” it by cracking apart the liquorice into bricks and stacking them like cross-hatching, four or five bricks high.

“Will you all be footing soon?” I asked. “We’ve skipped the last few years, as we’ve relied on firewood, but I’d really like to get a new load for next winter, and it’s already March.” I knew the man who owned that part of the bog, who sold the turf from it, saw a death in his family last year when his son drowned in the canal, and was in no state to do business.

“We surely will,” she said. “I’ll tell Tommy you’re interested, and you can come out with us. We’ll be putting our daughters to hard labour for the day, with their young muscles.”

“I might conscript my girl,” I said. “As of about six months ago she suddenly became a grumpy teenager and less enthusiastic about helping, but the air will be good for her.”

When I got to town there was no milk or any other staples, just as Caoimhe said – but it seemed like everyone in town had gone to the shop as well, not just to pick clean the few remaining items on the shelves but to chat and break the cabin fever. Some people had managed to get there by car, others by driving ATVs, tractors or even their horses – or just walked, as I had. At the shop I met my neighbour Jack, and talked about the strange weather.

“We’ve had cold snaps a few times before in the last century,” he said, “but in the last few years we’ve had the floods of 2009, the freeze of 2010, the floods of 2015 and now this,” he said. “It’s not anything we’re prepared for.” Nonetheless, he said, they were all well-stocked and used to living on very little, so they were able to take such crises in stride – richer or more modern people would be harder hit.

On the way I stopped at the pub, and many of the neighbours were crowding in there as well; one came in with his father-in-law, who insisted on buying me a pint, and I returned the favour. Many of us stop at the pub every so often, but are not regulars, so a gathering like this reunites people who see each other in passing but don’t get a chance to talk anymore.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Buried


Ordinarily Ireland gets no more than a light dusting of snow once a winter, as the Atlantic currents keep us temperate. This past week, though, was the weirdest weather my neighbours have ever seen. We've gotten up to a metre of snow in places, according to news reports, with winds of up to 100 kilometres an hour. Our car can't get out of our driveway, most buses and businesses have shut down, and the local stations have given over to weather reports.

The west of Ireland hasn't been hit as badly as this, but the east of the country got the worst of it; local news stations showed a map of the most-affected areas, and we're right in the middle of it. I'm told the temperature got lower a few times in the last century, but my elderly neighbours say they've never seen this much snow where we are.

I walked a few kilometres to the store yesterday, to pick up a few essentials, and found that about a hundred people had the same idea; no milk, eggs or many other staples. No matter; we're well stocked for food and wood for the fire, and we still have electricity.

I checked on the neighbours to make sure they had enough - many of them are quite elderly -- and not only are they doing well, the snow brings everyone out to play.

Actually, it's quite pleasant; I have a few days off work, and after a dark Irish winter we have bright sunshine -- and since it's snowed, the light is from above and below. The Girl made a snowman, and we had a snowball fight -- she's a teenager now, and usually too cool for such things, so I treasure these moments when I can.

The fact that our gas keeps freezing gives me a chance to experiment with cooking over the fire, where temperature is no longer a matter of a button or dial but the amount of wood and the curve and sound of the flames. I made egg drop soup today, and might try my hand at popcorn tonight.

I've been curling up by the fireplace with a couple of books by the amazing Anthony Esolen, and I'm taking calculus courses online. In the evenings we've been watching movies. A few nights ago I showed my daughter Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, one of my perennial favourites -- a delightful mix of comedy, romance and intrigue. Last night we watched Captain Blood -- a film under-remembered now, but every bit as good as the famous Adventures of Robin Hood, and with many of the same actors -- Errol Flynn, Olivia deHavilland, and my daughter's favourite, Basil Rathbone.

With a fireplace roaring next to us, we agreed: if you're stocked up on the basics and mentally prepared for disruption, an emergency can be a chance to remember how lucky you are.