Winter’s Fire

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Farmer Jay has been clearing logs from around the edges of the big field to the southeast of my house. He’s gone back into the cordwood business, he tells me, after a brief hiatus. He did not say why but I assume the favorable price of cordwood might have something to do with it. Cordwood is expensive (I can remember paying $45 a cord, years back, but I’ve heard of prices as high as $275 a cord more recently) but there’s also a lot of work in it. I don’t think the hourly wage of anyone who cuts cordwood for a living is very high. Plus it’s dangerous work. Still, it’s a good way for a hay farmer to earn income in the winter. So the familiar whine of the chainsaw began. He works alone but within sight of many of my windows so I glance out from time to time, an interesting diorama to watch when I look up from my desk. He works with a skidder, cutting the tree first, limbing them and then dragging the trunks across the field, stockpiling them up by the road. Standard logging practice. Looked to me like a lot of maple and ash but I didn’t look too closely. I could see from the fir boughs that were mounting beside the stone wall that he was also cutting pine. Though these fields belong to my neighbor, Jay manages them, keeping the edges trimmed and picking up trees that go over in wind and ice. This makes it easier for him to get as much hay as possible from these big and mostly productive meadows. I don’t know of any nicer fields in this town or the next. Aside from the fine horse hay it produces (I am told it is very good quality) and now the harvest of hardwood, these fields provide a great beauty, which is no small product.

So he spent several days cutting and I watching. The pine boughs out by the edge of the stone wall were mounting and the day that I wondered what he would do with those also brought my answer. With his skidder, he pushed the boughs into a big high pyramid and lit fire to it. The fields are covered by a very thin blanket of snow. The pile let up a big plume of smoke and for several hours, that was what it was, a green pile with smoke rising from the center. He kept pushing more limbs and branches toward the pile. At one point I walked out to the center of the field to get a closer look. As his yellow growling machine revved and rammed, I could hear the snap of wood, perhaps being broken by the force of the blade or maybe just the heat of fire inside the burning limbs. It sounded like a massive hearthfire, snapping and cracking as flames finally burst freely up through the pile. At moments, it seemed he was driving the skidder right into the fire. I stood in the cold and watched. Dense near the earth but thin above the treetops, the gray tower of smoke rose high into the air, visible, I’m sure, for miles.

The day was ending. After darkness fell, I looked out to see the brush still flaming, a red, angry circle in the blackness. It was a clear night, stars bright. A satellite drifted silently overhead. I wondered if Jay’s fire was visible from space. The morning brought a snow squall, dusting the fields, stone walls and every branch. Flames were no longer visible but smoke still moved slowly upward, a lazy climb, like a tired runner. When the workday started, Jay returned. I heard the engine of the yellow skidder start, waking up, clearing its throat, chugging across the field. With the blade of his skidder, he scoured the edges, a distant yellow monster relentlessly pushing long branches into the smoldering circle. Fire burst up again, muscular and inspired. Throughout the day, the tower of brush alternately flamed and smoked, a physical, vocal, theatrical presence in the otherwise still, silent field. Several days passed like this.

Last night, I could still see a red pile of embers glowing in the darkness of the night. Today only a wide charred circle in the white field remains, the end of the week’s performance. And a mystical footnote: that massive amount of matter, vanished. The long logs piled up by the road have yet to be dealt with.

  • Dear Edie
    I have just come to Yankee Mag. last month. I read your column and fell in love.I have went back and read your blogs.I copied your Chicken recipe.I love everything about you.We are so much a like.We like the same things.Would you like to adopt a 50 year old woman? I have never been north but i have always been fascinated with the north and i collect pewter, and that is the only place you can get it.Keep writing , we love everything you write.Would love to hear from you and talk.

  • Marjorie

    Today I added a face to one of my favorite writers and I am sure as I had thought before that I would love to sit down with you at the farm and talk about all the reasons we love Vermont.
    My friend gives me her Yankee magazines and I go straight to see what you are talking about this time. I just read all I could learn of Albert Quigley after finding him on your page. What an interesting man he must have been. I lived in Massachusetts for 19 years but now at age 79 I am settled back in my home state. I loved New England when I lived there and love it still. I made bi-annual journeys back for many years, usually straight to Vermont, but now that I am an arm-chair traveller I hope you will keep writing so I may stay connected to the people and places there.


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