Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Sudden Shift of Seasons

            Tomorrow is the fall equinox, officially the first day of autumn, but everywhere I went in town the other day people said, "I can't believe it's winter already." What they meant is that suddenly it's cool and rainy, and since that's what winter is like, that's the way they phrased it. It's not really winter – we are proud of having four distinct seasons in southern Oregon – but the seasons have shifted.  
            This autumn-that-seems-like-winter began, at my house, with a strange clanging sound in the night that I finally identified as rain in the gutter. Rain! – if not the beginning of winter, certainly the end of summer. Later the sound changed to the fuzziness of a steady Oregon-style drizzle. The air smells of damp earth, wet leaves, and, vaguely, wet ashes from the fire over the ridge.
            I feel like I've awakened from hibernation – only, of course, it was estivation, the long summer sleep. Not many animals estivate, but the human animal might, given the "lazy days of summer." Most animals, like the chipmunk on my deck, follow the other maxim, making hay while the sun shines. For three summers now I have watched him scurry around the flower boxes, burying his acorns in the soft dirt. Every spring, when I plant my zinnias and verbena on the sunny side of the deck and impatiens and geraniums on the shady side, I pull up the fruits of his labors, oak seedling after oak seedling with its long root deep in my pot.
            Unlike my chipmunk, I'm not ready for winter. There was no time between the lifting of fire restrictions, allowing me to run the machine that would split my firewood rounds into usable pieces, and the rainfall now soaking all that wood Mike and I worked so hard to get down the hill. The rocks that snow and frost knocked out of the rock wall last winter are still lying on the ground, leaving holes in the wall that weaken its structure. I have been meaning all summer to repair that wall, before more snow and frost bring more of it tumbling down, but the heat, the smoke, and procrastination kept me in estivation.
            I am dismayed that my nice wooden table and chairs, for summer breakfast on the deck, are getting wet because I haven't stored them in the shed for the winter. The house plants are still on the porch by the front door, taking the space where, in winter, I keep several days' worth of firewood, easily accessible, for building the morning fire. This morning, when I built the first fire of the season, I had to walk to the woodshed with a flashlight for an armful of firewood to carry back to the house.
            Is it already time for sweaters and heavy socks? What clothes do I have that are not for summer but not for winter, either? I look fondly again at my pretty sweaters, my long wool skirt, my leather-and-fur (fake leather, fake fur) coat. This winter maybe I'll wear my long woolen cloak more than I did last winter. I'm old enough to look eccentric.
            Gradually I remember the pleasures of winter – the fire in the stove, winter clothes, cross-country skiing. Today I'll take the house plants inside and stack firewood on the front porch. I'll get the firewood split this weekend and fill the woodshed with wood, where it should dry quickly. And when the rain lets up and the air is less chilly, I'll fix the rock wall, too.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Throwing Firewood

            The smoke has cleared into a thin veil. I have thrown open the windows, breathed deeply, taken walks, and turned my attention to neglected tasks, most notably getting the firewood in.
            Earlier in the summer Mike cut down and cut into rounds a dozen or so dead madrones I had found way the heck up the mountain from my house. To get the rounds to the house, Mike said, we (generously thereby offering his help) could throw them down the hill.

            That sounded easy. I envisioned standing at the top, watching round after round tumble to the bottom, conveniently stopping just behind the woodshed.
            Reality rectifies that vision. What looked like one long steep hill is actually broken up by slightly flat places, five stations on the journey of a piece of firewood to the woodshed. Station 1 is the top, where the cut pieces are collected. With a good throw, a heavy enough piece will go tumbling and rolling all the way down the hill, out of sight, to Station 2, a flat spot with a branch across it. Smaller pieces, lacking momentum, have to be herded.

            From Station 2 to Station 3 is my favorite run. A good throw will send a piece of wood careening down the hill, glancing off the left bank towards the right bank, where, if it is going well, it makes a turn to the left and heads on down the hill, dodging a four-foot cedar tree in the path, ricocheting off a tree on one side, spiraling to the other side, and in that fashion, like a billiard ball amok on the table, gathering speed as it goes, it tears out of sight. Mike and I at the top listen for the resounding and victorious "thunk!" when it hits the boards I had propped between trees as a barrier. 

When we hear the thunk, we cheer.
            But the run to Station 3 is also where firewood is mostly like to turn truant. An ornery piece might go partway down the hill, jump the edge, and crash through the woods. If we're lucky, it stops against a tree not too far off the track, still visible. If we're not lucky, it crashes out of sight through the woods and down the hill, giving clue to its resting place only by the sound – a soft landing in ferns, crackly in dry leaves, the distance revealed by the growing faintness of the tumble and the sinking feeling in our hearts. Any wayward log has to be retrieved immediately, before its resting place is forgotten and it becomes lost, so I walk down the hill towards the next station and detour into the woods – steep, slippery with leaves, treacherous with roots and downed trees and branches – to hunt for the miscreant log. When I find it, I lug it uphill back to the track.
            Station 4, at the flat where my water tank sits, is only a short distance from Station 3 but not very steep. I roll the rounds, urging them gently along. Mike prefers carrying them to Station 4 and then throwing them down the last part of the long journey, to Station 5, the old mining ditch just above the woodshed. 

            If we get the wood to the ditch, that is good enough. There'll be another day for carrying it to the wood splitter and stacking it in the woodshed.
            It's been a whole lot more work than I imagined. Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it, if I shouldn't have just bought my firewood, after all. But then Mike comes to help. We climb the hill and start throwing firewood. Mike prefers the job of hurtling the monsters from the top of a station, 

and I'm just as glad to leave those for him to heft. I prefer the job of chasing truculent pieces through the woods, climbing up and down, up and down that steep hill. We work well together. We stay in good humor. Sweat pours into our eyes and stings the scratches on our arms and legs. When I yell encouragement to logs leaping and hopping down the hill, Mike, in mock exasperation, reminds me that firewood is an inanimate object. We work till we're exhausted. This job is undeniably a lot of work, but it is a good lesson that what is a lot of work can also be a lot of fun.  

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Fire in the Applegate

            On August 14 God, playing with his lightning-strike matches, ignited numerous fires in the mountains in which I live. Fortunately, a gushing rainfall followed. Some fires burned out. Some were contained by fire-fighters. Others grew and united into three fires, called, collectively, the Miller Complex: the Creedence Fire on Grayback Mountain, just over the ridge from my house; the Burnt Ridge Fire on the other side of Humpy, the mountain I face; and the Abney Fire, the largest, at the south end of the Applegate Lake, eight miles away.
            We have known all along, we who live in the Siskiyou Mountains, that these are fire-dependent forests. We know that fires will burn in them. I have noticed the burned stumps and charred trunks on my own land —"Yes, there was a fire here years ago"—and ignored the obvious conclusion that there would be fire here again.
            Now, here, again, there is fire.
         Where there is fire, there is smoke, so dense we live in a land of the unseen. Day after day smoke obliterates Humpy. There is no sun. 

On other days the outline of the mountain shows faintly through the smoke, a ghostly line against a ghostly sky with a wan, burnt-orange sun. 

The air is as still and unmoving as a shroud. Thin smoke hangs listlessly around trees that stand unmoving in the phantom air. Daylight is dim. Dark falls early.
            It is eerily quiet. I haven't heard my owl calling at night or any deer or bears stepping through the woods. Even the blue jays have stopped squawking. I don't hear fire bomber planes or the chop-chop of helicopters dangling their buckets of water. Smoke prevents fire-fighting from the air.
      One evening, miracule dictu, God's hand scooped up the smoke and unveiled the moon. Immediately God dropped his handful of smoke, and all the atmosphere turned white again.
          Ash on my car windows is a physical reminder of what would be in our lungs if we were out there breathing it. I stay indoors. I keep the windows closed and the fan on. I chafe without exercise, walking only from the couch, where I knit, to the desk, where I write, to the kitchen, where I cook, to the bed, where I sleep.
        But the smoke has its benefits. Without it, we would be in 100-degree temperatures, for instance. Also, if the smoke is restricting my oxygen intake, it's doing the same for the fires, keeping them low-burning. 

If they could breathe, they would leap like demons up the trees to the forest crown.
            Fire-fighting efforts are hampered by lack of resources (numerous fires burn from Washington to northern California) and by the steep, inaccessible terrain of the Siskiyous. But that terrain is also an advantage. "Benefiting from the smoky inversion and fighting the steep rocky slopes, [the fires], as they back into the canyons below, have burned at largely low to moderate severity, creating a natural mosaic of fire," Luke Ruediger writes on his blog,
            The fires creep slowly along, slurping burnable material without looking overhead. "The fires are reducing fuels, recycling nutrition, naturally thinning our forests, and doing good ecological work," Luke says.
          That's fine, but we don't want our homes to be what the fire finds as it snuffs along the ground, looking for food, and there, again, we are fortunate. Luke points out that the fires have burned mostly in roadless wildlands, amid intact native forest and woodland habitats. When the fires have threatened homes, fire crews, the heroes of the Applegate, have worked bravely and intelligently to protect that property. At the same time, Forest Service fire personnel are honoring what Luke calls "ecological and wilderness values."
        The fires are burning on some of my favorite backcountry haunts: Middle Fork, Cook and Green, Horse Camp, the Pacific Crest Trail, Grayback, Mt. Emily, Butte Fork, Whiskey Peak, Phantom Meadow, the Red Buttes Wilderness. Hiking will be different next summer.
            Fire is the price we pay for living here. I love where I live and am not unwilling to pay the price. If our houses stay safe, if injuries are minimal, if the fires burn low, I'll suffer the smoke and wait out the years for revegetation in the forests. There will be an end to the smoke and the fire. The rains will come in October, squelching the fires and preparing the way for new growth.