Monday, December 15, 2008

Well duhhhh!

Excuse me. It's a six-pound splitting maul, not an eight-pound splitting maul. What was I thinking? After all, it's (½M*V2). And you sure can't do that with an eight-pound maul, can you?

Holiday Spirits

Yesterday, in a fit of industry, Mary and I bottled two of the last three batches of this year's cider. One was a full-batch blend, and the other was a half-batch of Arkansas Black varietal. Both hold great promise, and I find the idea of varietal ciders increasingly appealing after years of pressing grab-bag blends. We did not fine either batch, accepting a certain amount of haze in exchange for the fuller flavor the extra tannins provide.

They are nestled all snug in their bottles, waiting to make a grand entrance with the new year, if all goes well. I'm looking forward to their debuts.

To top things off, in the evening we set to work on a full batch of welsh ginger beer, a modified version of this summer's hit, "Rat Shandy."

White and brown sugar, a little extra lemon peel and juice; peel, raisins and fresh ginger all chewed up to bits in the food processor (so the raisins don't end up looking like those hideous bloated, swollen ticks--which they tend to do when left whole) and powdered ginger added for good measure.

At one point, the dry ingredients looked like a good basis for a baked holiday confection; some flour and shortening (instead of boiling water) might have taken it in a spectacularly different direction. But this morning I pitched the yeast and so it's on the way to being a fantastic and potent libation for a certain celebration we will be having in about six weeks.

Yum. Can't wait. Slainte!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A good day

I decided to get out early this morning and get some chores done while it was still cold. Remembering back to how I used to do it in the old days, I layered up plenty and left it to my bare hands to keep things in equilibrium.

By the time I stepped outside, it had warmed up to 22° and the early morning sun was driving the frost off the grass. I tinkered a bit with the chainsaw, checking the tension on the blade and topping off the tanks, and got down to business by bucking a pile of miscellaneous logs we had stacked near the house.

This year I have been experimenting with bucking felled trees into four-foot sections and letting those season in place. When I need stove wood, two quick cuts give me three perfect lengths of ready-to-burn wood. It seems to work pretty well as far as I can tell--at least today it did.

Once that little pile was bucked, split and stacked, I started on the mass of fungus-encrusted oak my brother and I hauled up from alongside the lane last weekend. Some bucking, a whole lot of splitting, and then some more bucking. All in all, by late afternoon I had bucked, split, moved and stacked about 3/10 cord of mostly hardwood--about 38 cubic feet or so.

The split wood fascinates me. The texture of freshly split oak often looks like white meat of a chicken, and today, it smelled richly of wintergreen. Often split oak smells unbelievable fruity, like ripe peaches or oranges--so strongly you want to taste it just to see how that can be. Other times it smells, well, oaky--the rich smell associated with chardonnay. It's the smell of chardonnay without the grapes.

A bunch of what I split today was well-aged cedar. It's beautiful in its own way. When you cut it, it send showers of bright pink confetti all over the place; the color can be so vivid as to defy belief. The interplay of colors on the split face of a chunk of cedar is fantastic, and what it so often calls to mind above all else is the unnaturally fluorescent shade of port-wine cheese. Again, the resemblance is so uncanny one is tempted to taste it just to see...

It seems to make perfect sense to me to describe these pieces of wood in terms of foods; it is a reasonable simile. This wood, in a short while, will be taken into the house. It will warm us and sustain us, cheer us and bring us together, give us energy and help us through the bright days and the cold dark nights. We will consume it as surely as we consume our meals, though not internally. But as food is to sustaining our bodies and spirits, so these pieces of cord wood are to sustaining and nourishing our hearth and home.

For all my troubles, I am very stiff and sore. My back hurts. By shoulders and elbows ache from hefting the 8-lb splitting maul again and again, crashing it down on log after log, reaching, lifting, twisting, throwing, bending, stacking the countless sticks of firewood.

Maybe I'll find a glass of nice, oaky chardonnay. I think it's time to go sit by the fire.

Friday, December 12, 2008


We had some pretty raw weather yesterday. Harsh, cold and blustery, it rained hard most of the day, a lot of it fairly sideways, and it never got more than a few degrees above freezing. The roof leaked like a sieve as it usually does when tested like that, but all in all, the woodstove did a valiant job in keeping the house cozy in the evening.

We basked in the warmth of each other's company, did our various tasks, and enjoyed a glass or two of red wine. All night long, the rain came and went in waves, washing over the house and tapping away at the skylights.

Then this morning, I saw snow on the mountains!

Now, our mountains are very, very old. Nowhere do we have anything that even approaches having a 'treeline' as you might find out west or up north; all our gentle mountains have wooded summits. And our snow, when we get it, tends to be very feeble. So saying we have 'snow on the mountains' may create a false impression of alpinity.

But when there is snow on our mountains, it is very special. Their background, normally a dull canvas of grey-brown, becomes a luminous light grey; their countless sloping ridgelines stand out against this background, the brush-like fur of trees standing in silhouette. They become sketches of themselves, limned out in tiny little cross-hatched lines, delicate but defined. Subtle, sublime, brooding in their grand repose.

There is hardly another time when they are so beautiful.

"...He moves in darkness as it seems to me..."

I didn't spend any significant time outside the suburbs until I was a young teenager. When I was exposed to real fields for the first time (unlike, say, the fields in a battlefield park) I wasn't quite sure what to make of them.

When you grow up in quasi-urban areas, a fence pretty much serves one purpose: to divide this from that. Fences represent boundaries of possession and ownership, of rightfulness and trespass. You are on your side; they are on their side, and never the twain shall mingle, much less meet.

But fences also serve the function of constraining things, and as a suburban kid it took me a long time to realize that out in the country, fences and boundaries were not synonymous. There were boundaries that were not marked by fences; there were fences that did not represent boundaries, only constraints. And sure enough, there were fences that also happened to be boundaries.

I can still remember the first frisson of delight in crossing a fence into a boundless field, realizing at that instant I was not the thing to be constrained. The world became a much larger, grander place in that moment.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

An attenuated world

The other morning around sunrise I walked out of the house into a bitingly cold, still world. It was silent but for my boots creaking on the paving stones, and it was a few moments before my eyes adjusted to seeing the world around me.

I say that my eyes adjusted, but the truth is, my mind had a very hard time parsing what I was looking at. I stood in a world of attenuated color, one so unsaturated that contrast failed and distinctions among objects were dramatically diminished.

The sun was up, and it was not cloudy. It was not the crisp and harsh glazing of ice. It was not foggy—I could see clearly to the far horizon, and every detail stood out from foreground to the distance.

As far as I could see, everything—every last surface and object—was coated with frost. Trees and earth, walls and roofs, grass and stone, everything touched with the same even-handed and egalitarian coating that was just enough to seem like a wash applied to the world. All was evenly muted, reduced to gray scale, toned down a few points.

As I left through the cathedral of the lowlands, the effect was spectacular and eerie. The world around me was luminous and ghostly, light where it is usually dark, yet grey where it is usually bold. The world was filtered for just these few moments. The rising sun promptly reset the palette with a gentle brush, driving off the ephemeral frost in instants, and drawing the underlying color to the fore once again.

If that instant before the sun shone had a sound, it would be one long note, played on a cello.

Wheat, chaff

It just occurred to me that it's been at least two weeks—maybe more—since I've encountered any other motorcyclists on the road.

Now, to be charitable, I just may not be taking a representative sample. I hit the road around 7:45, get to work around 8:15, and do the reverse around 4:30 or 5:00. Half my trip is on a four-lane divided highway that traverses a small town on its way towards the exurbs and a major city. The other half is also a four-lane divided highway, one that is the main crossover route between two interstates. You'd think those would be pretty likely places to look.

After all, these are the main east-west, north-south inbound-outbound arteries serving a big chunk of the countryside around these parts. But if I recall correctly, the last fellow traveller I spotted was bundled up and hunkered down, riding his R1200 Adventure like nobody's business and he was late to Tierra Del Fuego to meet a buddy for lunch.

But that was two fridays ago, at least. And the two locals parked outside the neighborhood cafe on that brief spring-like interregnum don't count. Those silly looking tarted-up hogs hadn't had time to warm their oil before it was time to stretch, take a pee and get sumpin' t'eat.

I like it this way. Cold makes the impurities separate out; the chaff goes away. I have the road to myself.