“Birch is most definitely the cadillac of wood, kept us warm growing up,” Ian tells me, fondly recalling winters of his prairie youth. We and a dozen others are gathered around a crackling bonfire in British Columbia on New Year’s Eve day. Stacked in the fresh snow is a pile of wood …readied to keep the fire ablaze.
Despite a temperature of -12 Celsius, the late afternoon gathering is lively and it feels perfectly natural to socialize in the beautiful outdoors. Neighbours wander up with a drink and a ‘Happy New Year’ on their lips, many clutching a pair of skates.
For beyond the fresh air and the chance to greet friends, the other attraction is the open-air skating rink. A few meters from where we’re gathered, the glassy stretch of ice beckons as keenly as a deep-blue pool of water…if you’re a skater that is.
Skating on outdoor ice is a hallmark of Canadian winters, about as idyllic as it gets. Two of my sons are with us and they can’t get their skates on fast enough. Having played hockey in various countries we’ve called home – Oman, Dubai, Norway, the U.S. – the opportunity to strap on the ‘blades’ in the Canadian outdoors is part of their identity. But perhaps that is over-thinking it… it’s just unbridled joy.
They glide and weave effortlessly over the frozen pond. They and longtime friends grab hockey sticks and shoot pucks at the net, shouting into the cold December air, Feels so great to be out here! For a longtime hockey mom, it is music to my ear-muffed ears on this last day of 2016.
We’ve delighted in seeing countless outdoor rinks this holiday season in the small towns in our area…Cranbrook, Fernie and Kimberley. This is what you do. It’s how many families spend time together, building traditions all the while. Perhaps the rink is the setting for a date or where you just ‘hang out’ and meet friends. Or maybe you play a game of shinny – pond hockey – with whoever happens to be around. It’s all of this and more; it’s part of being from the ‘great white north’. This is where the deep and abiding love of skating and hockey is born in the hearts of many Canadians.
My own boys learned to skate on Grandpa’s pond. On visits home for Christmas the first question was usually, “How’s the ice Grandpa, can we skate?” If the answer was ‘yes’, out came the wide snow shovels. Back and forth they were pushed, clearing the snow for action…anticipation rising as each strip of ice revealed itself.
Countless hours were spent with family on that frozen wonderland. The grind and rasp of metal blades on the uneven surface, the crack and thunk of a flexing ice sheet, the elated shouts of kids at play, the bark of dogs chasing the puck…the sounds of winter ingrained in our memories. And now for life, the guys can enjoy a day like today and feel at home on the ice.
With dusk approaching, more people arrive and I smile at a small girl on the bench at the edge of the ice. Her mother is lacing up her figure skates and she’s clearly excited. The ice is busy, yet the skaters will be mindful of a beginner; memories of learning how to skate stay with you. It’s tough. You stumble, you fall, you get back up over and over again until you get it. And then, like riding a bike, the sense of freedom and satisfaction it brings is thrilling.
Back at the bonfire, I continue the discussion of wood with Ian and our good friend Nolan. The brothers grew up in Saskatchewan where a weighty stack of wood got you through the biting cold winters.
“Birch is ideal,” the two confirm, adding some science to their assertion. “It doesn’t spit, good energy density and it burns hot.”
I admit that I had ‘smuggled’ some ornamental birch logs into my shipment when we left Norway and on reflection, it had always burned well in our classic Norwegian fireplace.
Some treasured pieces of it now happen to be part of my decor in India, of all places. Perhaps like the wooden skis propped in our office, the birch reminds me of my roots. Of growing up in cold winters; in the snow, on a ski hill, on the ice and yes, often huddled cozily around a fireplace. But there’s far more to wood than meets the eye. “Did you know that the chopping and stacking of wood can be a bit of an obsession in Norway, even takes on an art form,” I offer as someone adds more pinewood to the bonfire.
Yes, apparently it’s common knowledge that wood will dry well if there’s enough space for a mouse to run hither and tither throughout the pile. And stacking that wood is not to be taken lightly. Different types of wood should be stacked accordingly and in Norway, besides the practical piles like a sun-wall pile, there’s a round stack, a closed square, a standing round stack or the v-shape pile. Who knew?
There are also the sculptured woodpiles. I have learned that wood, with its complex hues, also offers an outlet for creativity that one might not expect. The end of a pice of oak is a deep brown. Pine and spruce radiate yellow tones with a little help from the sun, whereas cut ends of elm, aspen and maple display as muted whites. And apparently the rich alder is also a sought-after shade for stacking aficionados.
It seems there’s no end to woodsy creativity, One might ‘sculpt’ a massive fish or even a portrait of the king and queen. I recall that while we lived in Stavanger a retired engineer had created a woodpile portrait of Queen Sonja and King Harold V, in tribute of the king’s seventy-fifth birthday. This masterpiece had been preceded by a portrait of a composer and a likeness of the local mayor. How wonderful to find creativity in wood (and gain a bit of notoriety!)
Yet if it that all sounds a little mundane, there is something far more rousing about woodpiles. “Ok gentlemen,” I joke with my friends at the bonfire, “by any chance did your prospective wives happen to inspect your woodpile before they said yes?” There’s a reason I’m asking of course.
In the late nineteenth century in the American state of Maine, it is reported that young women might determine the suitability of a husband by the condition of his woodpile. Call it a folksy tradition or not, but the general rule was thus:
Upright and solid pile: the same could be said of the man.
Low pile: a good cautious man but could be shy or weak.
Unusual shape: freethinking and maybe an open spirit but construction could be weak.
Not much wood: be ready for a life from hand to mouth.
Unfinished pile, some logs here and there: unstable, lazy, maybe prone to drink?
Old and new wood together: be suspicious, might be some stolen wood there.
No woodpile: forget it, there must be more suitable candidates!
I think of the wood pile at the back of our mountain home. No it surely isn’t perfect, but the wood has been enthusiastically chopped. At our house you never have to ask twice to have firewood, our guys relish the opportunity to channel their inner woodsman. There’s no question they find a certain satisfaction in the process.
It is said that chopping your own wood is therapeutic and contemplative, even atavistic. A chance to wield an axe, use brute power – a gratifying correlation between effort and output.
Back in 1854 in his book Walden, Henry Thoreau extolled the virtues of not only chopping wood but living a simple life in natural surroundings. It was Thoreau who observed that wood warms twice over, once when you chop it and again when you burn it.
A seemingly simple observation that just happens to be inscribed on a small cushion in our home. Filled with pine needles, it evokes the spirit of the outdoors and nature’s simple pleasures.
I’m curious to see how our neighbourhood measures up in the wood stacking department. I notice finely-stacked woodpiles and logs waiting to be split and chopped, all protected by snow-clad trees and cabin eaves. This is the kind of place where snowboards, skis, snowshoes and sleds lean against houses, fond embrace of the mountain lifestyle. It’s where snow piles high, gathering on roofs and resting on tamarack, pine and birch. Indeed, the reminders are everywhere…embrace nature’s beauty.
We said our farewells, hung up the snowshoes and covered our not-so finely stacked woodpile. Now from our other home in India, restored to face the challenges and the new opportunities the year will bring, I wish you all a joyful and fulfilled New Year. I hope you’ll revel in the beauty of nature…wherever you may be…Terry Anne