The Backstory: Winter nights, snowy days, and an Appalachian woodcutter

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My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.
My parents relocated our family to the top of an Appalachian mountain by the time I was 3.

One wall of our living room, 7 feet tall by 16 feet wide, was solid Pennsylvania field stone, handpicked by my dad and brothers for the stone masons to set into a wall for that end of the  room. (Still the coolest part of the house IMHO. I love it.)

A huge slab of hand-cut cherry formed a mantle, where stood some of mom’s treasured ceramic and metal pieces of art, and hung with a powder horn in honor of the pioneers and Indians who’d lived in these hills before us.

Beneath that was set a black steel wood stove, offering a shelf of hot metal perfect for a pot of soup that might serve as supper. And stretching the width of the wall on either side was a built-in stone hearth, a foot or so out into the living room, making room for piles of the wood that kept us warm. [And a pair of wagon wheels, one on either side, gathered by my mom during her antiquing trips.  But that’s a different story. ]

I grew up on top of a “mountain.” Granted, this was in Pennsylvania, so it wasn’t a mountain by Western standards. (We once drove from 100 degree Phoenix to 40 degree Denver in one long shot, crossing Wolf Pass in Colorado shortly after midnight where — I kid you not — it was 32 degrees and there was snow in the ground, in late June.)

But for the East, it counts.

Rich Hill probably doesn’t show up on a map. It’s not really the name of the place, just a local appellation for a general area, a peak among peaks, a hill that rose above others to provide some wonderful vistas as you were driving into town.  And on top of Rich Hill you would find 12 acres of trees, with a small clearing and our house.

The outdoor temperature always registered 10 degrees cooler at home than “down in the city” (a town of <10,000). In the summer, that meant cool breezes filtered through the shady canopy of hardwoods that surrounded our house.

In spring and fall, a thick blanket of fog might sit on top of our mountain all day, never relenting.  You could drive ½ mile down the  road and find that a cloud had snagged on the peak, leaving us smothered in white while the rest of the world carried on its business underneath a relatively normal cloudy sky.

In the winter, we caught brutal snows and wind that befit the first real range of mountains as you head from west to east from Pittsburgh into the interior of the state.  A freight-train wind made your insides feel cold, regardless of the thermostat reading.

I’ve always hated winter. It’s dark; it’s dead; it’s cold. Depressing, really.  Nothing sounds as despairing as the wind howling around a house in a fierce snowstorm.

And it was in that cold that my dad trudged through the thick snow several times each night to make sure all the home fires were burning, that no pipes were freezing, that we weren’t freezing.  I slept through his nocturnal watchings, burrowed under 2 blankets and on top of a 3rd. (Sheets are way too cold when your household temperature overnight is a chilly 55.)

Snow laid out on a field under a full moon is probably the most beautiful sight God ever created.  Even when the bitter cold leaked through the very molecules of a windowpane (you could feel the cold on your face, inches from the glass), the beauty of unbroken snow took me back.  It was so …. perfect.  Untouched by human hands. Maybe the tracks of a freezing songbird, squirrel, cat, or fox.

We heated our house with wood.  There’s a longer explanation, tied to my dad’s partial blindness,  unemployment, and resulting financial crisis for our family. The short answer is this: We lived on 12 acres of trees. Hard to beat “free” when it comes to fuel for heating.

It took a tree — an entire 90 feet of gorgeous oak or maple or cherry  which had probably stood since before airplanes existed to fly over its head — an entire tree a day to keep our house warm on the coldest days.

Each winter day, once things had thawed a bit, my dad began his  ritual:   After breakfast and his Bible study, he doubled up his socks, put on a third shirt (above the t-shirt and flannel he was already wearing), and laced up his steel-toed work boots.  Over the layers of shirts, he buttoned an undercoat and then a dingy yellow work coat with flashes of reflective tape (leftover from his days in the steel mill) and wrapped a scarf tightly to keep his neck warm. He stacked a couple hats on his head, put on a pair of work gloves, and headed to the basement to fire up the Stihl chain saw.

If I happened to be at home – perhaps a rare snow day, triggered because below-zero temperatures made it too difficult to clear the roads enough for the mountain kids to get to school? — I’d hear the thump of the cellar door as he went out to find a dead hardwood he’d marked on his mental map back when the leaves were there to tell the story of which trees still carried life, and which were ready to fall.

If I stood near a window I might hear the hum of the chainsaw cutting through a trunk, first notching the tree in the direction he wanted it to fall (you had to work all this out before you began cutting), and then around the other side to sever the tree low at the stump.  If all went well, the tree fell without taking any others with it.  If he was unlucky, the tree might catch on other nearby branches, refusing to fall.  Or tilt backwards on its stump, pinning the chainsaw. Bad.

But on the easier days, an impressive crash and thud from a felled tree echoed …. unless the snow hid it.  Snow has an incredible insulating property, the ability to absorb sound out of your very skull so that nothing seemed to make noise ever. Eerie, in fact.

This was the shorter of our two driveways. Whenever it snowed, Dad would shovel it open by hand.
This was the shorter of our two driveways. Whenever it snowed, Dad would shovel it open by hand.

Once the tree lay on the ground, Dad cut the limbs from the trunk so those could be gathered later. Thick limbs might be useful for the wood fire; the thin ones were basically just kindling or “along-siders,” my dad’s name for the smaller logs needed to support a good fire overnight alongside a giant piece of oak or cherry.

He’d segment the trunk down into 6 to 8 foot sections and then — this is just crazy! — somehow he’d manage to single-handedly lift a full length of tree up onto his shoulder.

I wish I had a photo of this.  You probably don’t believe me. I hardly believe it myself, but it was a simple quotidian memory:  Dad emerging out of the woods bearing a massive log balanced on his left shoulder.

I think in the early days he used to cut up the tree and then haul the logs out by hand using his wheelbarrow. Ideally, we would have used a pickup truck, but his  50-something Ford died when I was very little, and we had to sell the Ford 150 trucks when he lost his job.  So no engine power; all manual labor.  And it’s hard enough to drive a wheelbarrow on level ground. Murderously hard on a wooded path covered in inches of snow.

You can drag logs, but that’s backbreaking work.  Easier to balance it and walk it up.  So he did. Somehow.

My dad wasn’t a huge man. He was around 6 feet tall, broad-shouldered, thick necked, large hands.  He wasn’t as muscular at the mill. But those shoulders and hands grew to fit the work in the woods that kept us alive from September through early May, kept us warm.

If all went well, he’d have the tree felled but uncarried by lunchtime. A quick sandwich or bit of leftover soup, a bit of respite, and then back outside, hauling up the logs  to be cut into 2-foot portions, then  splitting some by hand into manageable pieces for our wood stoves.

The rhythm of an axe makes its own melody on cold crisp air.
Chnk Chnk Chnk Crack Thud
A steel wedge made the job a little easier ….  Tap the wedge into a giant piece of oak, creating a small crevice. Pound the wedge into the hunk of tree, forcing it to give way. Hard work. Practiced swings.  A beautiful arc.  Then the log gave up, falling into halves or thirds, better for burning.

Armfulls of fresh and fragrant wood kept us warm, cooked our food, made the Pennsylvania winters in the isolated mountains bearable.

There was a rhythm to Dad’s steps, too, as he finished his woodcutting for the day, usually around 3 or 4pm.  I’d hear his feet crunching the snow outside as he walked around the front of the house with a load of wood for the upstairs wood stove.   The front door opened directly into the living room, which housed the hearth and the wood stove.

He’d stop outside the door to kick the snow off his boots — less watery mess to clean up afterward.  Thump-thump. (Right foot.) Thump thump. (Left foot.) The door opens, Dad walks in, arms full of wood.  The pieces crash down onto the hearth. Back out for another armload. Had to stock up enough for a full night’s burning.

The darkness would come by 4:30 in the dead of winter.  Woodcutting done, dad would mop up the snow-water from the floor, sweep the chips, hang up his coat and gloves to dry.  A warm fire made the house really pleasant.  He’d start on supper.  Mom wouldn’t make it home till 6:30 or later but she’d appreciate something good to eat after a long day of work.

On the best days, supper was already bubbling away in a pot on the living room stove: minestrone, perhaps.  You’d try to eat the air, it smelled so good.

“Pssssh. This isn’t cold! You wanna see real cold? Well, when I was in Pennsylvania….”

I guess it’s by the grace of God that transplanted Northerners aren’t murdered in droves every winter by the Southerners who put up with their constant derision at definitions of “cold,” “snowy,” “winter,” “storm,” or “you really should wear a coat.”

I’m sorry y’all.  We can’t help it.  Your snow days are so adorable. 🙂

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