Celebrating the end of wood stove season

Now that the calendar has flipped past February, we’re rapidly approaching one of our household’s most eagerly anticipated holidays: Final Fire Day, when we stoke the wood stove for the last time of the season.

One distinction of this festive occasion is that, unlike New Year’s Day or the Fourth of July, it typically falls on different days. Some years we’ve celebrated Final Fire Day as early as the second or third week of March; others have seen delays well into May. This year — who knows? As much as I enjoy winter, lighting and stoking the stove has lost its charm by now.

Last Fire Day represents the yin to the yang of last fall’s First Fire Day (or is it the yang to the yin? I always get them confused. I am so un-zenlike that once at a Chinese restaurant, I noticed a tea bag tag inscribed with the koan, “For the truth, look inside.” I then spent the next 10 minutes trying to tear open the label for hidden words of wisdom.)

Anyway, after the solemn observance of First Fire Day, we enter a brief period of euphoria while basking in the stove’s warm glow and savoring the heady aroma of wood smoke curling from the chimney.

This temporary elation is supplanted by more than four months of suffering.

A wood stove is like an infant — you have to wake up in the middle of the night to feed it. So far this season, we’ve burned nearly six cords of wood; one cord, which measures 128 cubic feet, weighs more than two tons, which means we’ve lugged about 12 tons of logs 50 feet from the woodshed to the wood box near the front door.

I’ve had to cut down dozens of trees, buck limbs, saw trunks into the proper length so they fit in the stove, drag logs up and down hilly terrain for several hundred yards, and split and stack them.

By the way, this week I started transplanting more than 100 tree seedlings that have been growing in pots next to our garden. This spring, I’ll order a couple hundred more; over the decades, I’ve replaced the trees I’ve cut with thousands of new ones — some now stand 30 feet tall.

We also constantly collect kindling from fallen branches and keep it in a barrel by the front door. I’d rather run out of just about any food or consumable product than get caught without kindling.

Then there are all the ashes. Once a week or so, I’ve had to empty the stove ashpan into a galvanized bucket and dump the contents into a pit I dug about 100 yards away. And the dust … don’t get me started on ashes. At least there’s no sackcloth.

While it’s true that we go through a lot of trouble to heat with wood, I’m not complaining. It truly is a labor of love, or at least satisfaction; if it weren’t, we’d simply click on the furnace, something we haven’t done once this season.

The only creatures likely to be more ecstatic about Final Fire Day are the squirrels that have taken up residence in our woodshed.

I don’t begrudge the squirrels their tenancy — hey, we all have to live somewhere — but I am mystified that they always seem to be home.

I typically make four or five firewood replenishing forays a day, and each time I thump up the wooden stairs, I hear frantic scurrying. Sometimes I see a flash of gray tail as one of the critters dashes along a rafter and out an opening in the eaves, but usually I only hear tiny feet racing over stacks of firewood.

You'd think that after 30 or 40 times the squirrels would get used to my regular intrusions, but no. Scramble, scramble, scramble, over and over again.

Maybe they're thinking similar thoughts: "What is it with that crazy, two-legged creature? In out, in out, in out. Why doesn't he stay in one place and give us some rest, for crying out loud!"

Still, I wonder what are those squirrels doing in that cold, dusty, dreary shed all day and night? Why aren't they doing such squirrel-like activities as climbing telephone poles, gnawing on acorns or dashing in front of cars?

I've been a tolerant landlord, delaying removal of firewood from the corner where the squirrels have taken refuge. For their part, the squirrels also have been considerate — unlike the one that broke into the basement of my friends' home a couple weeks ago.

"You're an outdoor guy – how do we get rid of it?" my buddy Paul asked. People always think that just because I go kayaking and hiking I know everything about plants and animals.

"I dunno — try putting out mothballs," I suggested.

Turns out Paul had found the hole through which the squirrel had gained access and then barricaded it. This is sort of like locking the barn door after the horses have escaped. Come to think of it, it's the opposite, but you get the idea.

Realizing that he might just as well have tried asking Ivanka Trump for advice, Paul eventually called an animal control expert, which sounds a lot more humane than exterminator, and the problem got solved. I like to think there wasn't any mayhem — I heard Paul say something about a trap and didn't press for details.

Anyway, Paul and Cathy's basement is now squirrel free, just as my woodshed likely will be after we burn our last stick of firewood and celebrate Final Fire Day.

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