Our house on the pond is owned by the next door neighbors, Vincent and Ruth. Ruth is a tough cookie with a face like a prize fighter, all swarthy and pugnacious. She owns the old Town Hall which is no longer used for municipal functions, she has stuffed it full of second hand furniture and appliances for sale. Vincent is a skinny, sinewy carpenter, pretty taciturn, he lets Ruth do the talking.
One day, Vincent asks Karl to help him out on a job, he’s short a man and Karl looks like he can put in a good day’s work. Vincent and Karl drive out to the site, and Vincent tells Karl to dig a ditch so they can lay pipe. Karl picks up a shovel, he’s all confident and strong and digs and throws the dirt aside, each shovelful showering in all directions. Then Vincent digs, when he tosses his dirt it flies in a studied trajectory 20 feet and lands in a compact heap. So Karl learns the skill of digging which he didn’t even know was a skill, and he and Vincent work together off and on for about a year.
Living on the pond is nice in warm weather but harsh in winter, the ice freezes around the geese as they are paddling. Karl has to skate out and free them faster than the ice can crack open from his weight, I watch horrified through the window. We give the geese to a beginner farmer, they are used to slow learners by now.
When the snowplow goes by our house the snow sifts through cracks in the walls. Our toilet freezes solid. The only warm spots in the house are right around the stove or in bed under four blankets. We are so naive, we don’t know anything at all about making do or doing without, we only understand city streets and the closest we come to nature is watching Wild Kingdom.
We heat the house with wood, you can buy wood, or you can cut down your own trees. Since we don’t own any trees, and have no money to buy wood, we are grateful when townspeople offer us their dead elms at the edge of the pond. Vermont is full of dead elm trees, attacked years ago by a deadly fungus. It doesn’t occur to us to wonder why they are still standing.
Karl and I walk out onto the ice with borrowed toboggan, chain saw and axes and cut down our first tree ever, an ancient gnarled giant. It is a good place to experiment with felling a tree, because there aren’t any houses for the tree to fall on. But the trunk is huge, and felling a tree takes some skill, we learn. You have to cut just right. Otherwise, what happens is that the cut closes on the saw blade and the chainsaw is trapped.
Go see if we can borrow Vincent’s chain saw, Karl says through clenched teeth, struggling to pull ours out. Sometimes there’s no simple way to learn a lesson. Once the tree is down on the ice we saw off the limbs and cut up the trunk. Each chunk of elm is the size of a barrel, all twisted and knotted, it takes both of us to roll and lever one onto the toboggan.
Hours later we have moved all the wood across the pond and close to our house. We are exhausted but now ready to split the logs. Do you know that elm can’t be split? Neither do we. Our neighbors know though, which is why all the dead elms are still standing.
Really it’s not impossible to split elm, it’s just very, very difficult. When you split another kind of wood, say maple, you stand the log on end and hew it with an axe, the two halves of the wood fall apart, just like that. The grain in elm is different, it doesn’t grow straight. When you chop down with an axe, the axe just sticks into the top of the wood and the log hardly quivers. The only way to split elm is to use wedges and a maul, which is a big axe-like hammer. A wedge is a heavy triangular piece of iron. You find a little crack in the top of the elm log and fit the wedge in, praying it stays balanced there long enough to hit with the maul. Then you hammer down on the top of the wedge until it is buried in the wood. Sometimes just one wedge will split a log. Mostly, you need three or four before you see any results. It’s about a hundred times more work to split an elm log than a maple log.
You would think that after all the labor involved in splitting elm, it would make a terrific fire. Not so, at least old dead elm wood doesn’t, all I can say about its heat-producing quality is that it’s better than nothing. I once try to bake bread in a wood cook stove using elm but the oven won’t go above 200 degrees, no matter how I fan the coals. Turns out to be a good method for making whole wheat bricks, though.