Neighbors called last week as they do every year at this time. “Our hunters are here,” Cecilia said. “So, do please stay off the hill from now until November 10th.”
These neighbors own the 400-acre hill behind our house and very graciously allow us to hike the steep adobe terrain whenever we want. Except for third rifle season in early November. This is when a family of Californians drive out and prowl the juniper dotted ridges for a week until they’ve filled however many deer tags they have.
We call them “the Pumpkins,” with no disrespect. They come soon after Halloween, and their blaze-orange getups, sitting dead still sometimes for hours at a time, look like nothing so much as leftover gourds of the season.
We don’t mind, except when the pop of rifle fire sounds especially close. And we’re hardly in a position to complain. Our neighbors get a much-appreciated chunk of change out of the deal, and the family, complete with youngsters some years, seem like responsible hunting types.
I don’t hunt. Game animals, that is. I do hunt other things, firewood for one. The actual hunting Đ the going out into the woods to search, to look hard and see clearly, to work at it and come home with the goods Đ feeds a similar pride, I’m guessing, whatever the prey.
Firewood hunting used to be a necessary ritual, as primal as building a fire and keeping the family warm through the winter. We lived in leaky, century-old houses in Telluride and Ridgway with newspaper or nothing for insulation. And we burned a lot of wood.
Spruce came from up high in the “black timber” spruce-fir zone. (The alpine fir from up there burned fine, but smelled like urine in the wood box. The old timers called it “piss fir.”) We burned a little ponderosa pine from out on the mesas above the
So, for years I cut standing-dead aspen up on the
That’s what we burn mostly now that our fires are more aesthetic than essential. The hunting part comes in finding the right trees. This time of year the leaves are mostly down, and it’s very hard to tell the dead snags from the living. The quarry hides in plain sight.
You don’t want to bring the wrong stuff home. The wood needs to be dry and sound, not rotten inside. (With aspen, I could sometimes tell with a good watermelon thump of the knuckles.) The trunks need to be big enough around to justify the chainsaw gas. And the wood needs to be close enough to the road that I’m not humping rounds hundreds of yards to the truck.
Last week, between rifle seasons, I found myself standing perfectly still in the center of an oak grove, slender trunks all around like the legs of adults at a cocktail party when you were very small. I had my earplugs in, and in that sound bubble, the forest began gradually to reveal its secrets. The dead trees showed a subtle, reddish scale on their topmost branches, and the littlest twigs, the ones that might have held leaves, snapped crisply between my fingers.
One snag led to another. The work was repetitious but never boring. Every tree is unique: different cutting angle, different landing zone, different limbs to trim, different balance in the bucking up. The dangerous tool in my hands dictated a careful, tai-chi pace. Time evaporated in the looking and finding. I knew I had a truck load when the saw ran out of gas.
Morning became afternoon. The pickup felt like a full belly after Thanksgiving dinner, rolling down the road to the valley. Bed full of BTUs for the winter. A good tired feeling deep in the muscles. Elbow out the side window in the sun. Comin’ home, Mama.