This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
I suppose this is an ode to firewood. You know you grew up rural when the smell of chainsaw exhaust takes you back to childhood. It’s one of those things that I know is bad for me but I love; it’s funny how that works sometimes. Yesterday brother Lito and I went firewood cutting to replenish the wood sheds after the heavy use at the end of the year.
I’ve spent as much time cutting firewood as I have any other labor in this life. When I was a kid I used to do it for money, back to the days when I was too young to be allowed to run a chainsaw and I would drag dead manzanita from around the property to near the road and smash it up with a maul. It was hard work for a 10 year old, but I relished it.
A fire had burned the land we lived on in the 70’s, before we arrived. The result was dead manzanita everywhere, leaves and twigs long weathered away to leave gray branches that made great kindling and kitchen wood. The larger chunks made for good cordwood, but it burns so hot and fast that it needs mixing with something else.
It took me 2 long days of work to make a truckload of manzanita, one day for the hauling and one for the mauling. Pops had an old, long-bed Chevy that took a lot of firewood to fill it. When we all worked together as a family with my uncle, his smaller Chevy equated to $50 truckloads, so I did the math on the larger cubic footage in Pops’ truck and figured it was worth $75. When I had a good pile going I would ask Pops and he’d bring the truck up and park it so I could throw the wood into the bed.
Manzanita is an interesting wood because you can split long pieces lengthwise with the grain, and you can break the branches at firewood length by going crosswise. Branches that were too thick to smash crosswise could be mauled along the length to split into long, thinner chunks that could then be broken into firewood size. I loved the game of it, figuring out how to conquer massive chunks with just the maul. I also dreamed of using the chainsaw, but it was verboten and so I made do.
I was in high school when I got my first chainsaw, an old rebuild that my friend had put together. It was both dangerous and kind of a piece of shit, lacking the safety features of new models, and I used it for just a short time until I could save money to buy a new saw. I studied the different brands, walking back and forth in the hardware store, finally making a choice of one of the main, orange types.
Over the years I cut wood with my friends to earn money for all sorts of things, and as we grew old enough to have drivers licenses we were able to travel further for both finding wood to cut and finding customers to sell it to. It’s hard work, but rewarding in a tired-body-money-in-the-pocket kind of way.
This winter, as is so often the case when high-pressure sets up, I made just a handful of fires during the warm and sunny weather of January. Being up on the ridgeline means that we’re above the inversion layer; it will often be 20 degrees warmer up here than it is in town. It catches me by surprise every time I leave the mountain during sunny winter mornings, heading out in a t-shirt and getting to town and being cold as hell because it’s so frosty in the valley.
There is an oak that went down a couple years ago that my brothers had already started cutting on, so it was ideal for a late January firewood mission on a sunny day. The past couple of years I haven’t cut much wood because I had stockpiled so hard in the years previous that I was sitting pretty. Brother Ben brought me a couple truckloads, but otherwise the woodshed was well filled, which is the rural equivalent of money in the bank.
I’ve never burned wood in December like we did this year. For almost three weeks the stove never went out, which made the kindling stretch but blasted through the cordwood. Going into winter I was confident we had plenty, but by the end of December I was feeling scarce. The warmth of January has balanced it out some, but it felt good to get a truckload into the woodshed yesterday.
It’s funny how some experiences in life hark back through time with a resonance, bringing up all sorts of old memories. Cutting wood yesterday was just such an experience, making me feel the consonance of the passage of seasons, the journey of life in a rural place. It seems odd to treasure the soreness of muscles and the smell of chainsaw exhaust, but such is life. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!