He took to wooding as his countrymen take to vodka
Saturday 10 February 1996
We could, of course, keep the central heating on all day, rather than use it in bursts. But that would be far more expensive, and it would eliminate the pleasure of burning fuel which one has got by one's own efforts.
It is difficult to explain why wooding affords so much satisfaction. It provides good exercise, for sure, and gives expression to the squirrel instinct which all true countrymen possess. Yet there is more to it than that: there is the pleasure of wielding saw or axe with economy and precision, of knowing your trees and turning their characteristics to your advantage, of handling, loading and stacking a clean, sweet-smelling natural substance.
This is the time of year when earlier labours are rewarded. Now, in the blizzard, is the moment when you need bone-dry logs: not green stuff cut and split this year or last, but vintage supplies, seasoned for 18 months at least.
Partly by good luck, partly by good management, I am working through what I call my KGB stack. In the winter of 1993-94 I had dealings with a former colonel of the KGB, who came to stay several times. Being a physical sort of fellow, he wanted exercise, and took to wooding as his fellow- countrymen take to vodka. Again and again, one afternoon, he ascended our one-in-three slope and dragged a length of timber down to the track, where I cut it into logs. By dusk he was bathed in sweat, and next morning he could scarcely lift his arms to a horizontal position - but when I asked what he would like to do after lunch, he immediately opted for a return to slave labour.
The KGB logs are mostly ash - hard, white and ideal for Siberian weather. My latest acquisition is a rung or two down the calorie ladder, but excellent all the same: a big sycamore which blew down in an autumn gale, toppling out of the woodland edge into a neighbour's field. Since he himself does not burn logs, he asked if I would cut the tree up and take it away.
The sycamore was a classic victim of take-over by ivy. The climber had brought it down not by feeding off it, but simply by increasing what foresters call its sail area, so that it offered greater resistance to the wind. As always, the casualty looked far bigger at close quarters than when seen from across the valley. Towards the butt, the trunk was 30 inches in diameter, and the fact that it lay pointing down a slope increased the problems of dismemberment.
Luckily I had the assistance of Ben, a seven-year-old whose mother helps with the horses on the farm. Tiny, agile as a monkey and irrepressibly loquacious, he enlivened our toils with observations far beyond his years. "These damned cows are an infernal nuisance," he remarked when heifers jostled round the jeep and trailer; and then, "This ivy's a total menace."
So it was. Tendrils as thick as my wrist had knotted themselves round trunk and branches, and I had to cut away writhing masses of them before I could see the wood. Then I taught Ben how to start bonfires by building hearts of small dead sticks, and gradually, over four or five afternoons, we burnt all the ivy and branches too small to be worth saving.
The tree yielded magnificent firewood, yet it proved unexpectedly tough. Sycamore is only medium-hard - not nearly as dense as oak or beech - but the grain of this particular trunk turned out to be twisted, so that splitting the rounds became a nightmare Brute force won through in the end, and now the whole tree - five or six tons of it - is stacked at the back of the woodshed. There it will stay, with air passing between the logs, until the autumn of 1997 - by which time, with any luck, fresh storms will have brought further victims down.
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