Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Song of the Chainsaw

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that un homme in possession of a wood-burning stove must be in want of a chainsaw.

The delivery of a load of wood is a wonderful, atavistic thing. It speaks of hot fires and warm feet, and it will go on burning even in a power cut. Bring on winter, we’ve got wood – though what we need are logs, so there will be some tailoring of a robust nature required to get the fire going.

I saw an advertisement in an English magazine recently for a dinky little log store with a felted roof, just right, it said, for storing your winter wood out of the weather. It made me laugh; this was a mere toy. What good is that going to be when your wood comes on a tractor in metre lengths? Or you buy fagots from the woodyard, which come as long as the trees they once were? The little fancy store is for hobby-burners, people who get their wood ready-sized, no chainsaw required. Where’s the fun in that?

It’s a little like buying all your fresh meat on little polystyrene trays under gas-filled plastic: it cuts you off from the reality of the source.

For instance, it had never occurred to me that a tree is very heavy. Then one day He Who Does Everything Around Here needed help in topping an oak tree that was hanging over our pond. He climbed the tree, chainsaw in hand, tied a rope around the offending branch, and prepared to cut. I was on the other end of the rope, planning to run in the opposite direction as soon as the branch parted company from the tree.

Run was over-optimistic. I hauled for all I was worth – and I did stop the branch from falling into the water. I just wasn’t expecting it to weigh so much. There is, it seems, a big difference between freshly cut wet wood and a nice dry log ready for burning.

With a little bit of research I could probably find out the ratio of water to wood in such an equation, because there are books out there that will tell you. There are books on how to stack your logs in the optimum shape for drying; what sort of wood to burn; how to stop your chimney from getting too sooty, and what to do if you have been burning wood that is a little too damp, and you get a soot-fall. They will also tell you what to do with your ash.

There is, it turns out, a whole wealth of literature devoted to your cosy fireside. 

A Frenchman, however, has all this information written into his DNA. All over France you will find huge orderly stacks of logs, cut one year for use two years hence. They form barriers along the sides of fields; they are placed between two trees like giant bookends, so they can’t slide away. They are outside houses old and new, in barns, by front doors – everywhere you look. In France, all new-builds are supposed to have the ability to burn wood – forward thinking, if you like. And all this wood needs to be cut to size.

A chainsaw is a dangerous thing. I am told (from a safe distance) that when it starts it can rear up and give you a deep and permanent frown. You are advised in England to wear a special helmet and visor and ear defenders, and bright orange Kevlar trousers. This is so that you can tell which is the tree and which is your leg, and so when to stop. I have never seen a Frenchman using any of these things. In the right hands – experienced hands – it is, after all, just a tool for a specific job.

There is something fascinating about the felling of a tree – something devastating, and permanent, and impossible to put right again. Man has done it for millennia, to provide heat and for the ability to have his steak anything less than blue. It’s part of the folk-memory, stronger in some than in others. So when, as has been the case here recently, the chainsaw is not working properly, it’s not just a broken tool – it’s a man’s right hand, the link between tree and fireplace that’s missing. 

If this is strong in you, but you don’t have a wood store or the capacity to have a real fire in your house, and therefore no excuse at all for lurking in the DIY store next to the really big boy’s toys, don’t despair: you can always download the ring-tone.

It might earn you a look of respect in the supermarket check-out queue. People might think you are a real he-man type, orange trousers hidden beneath your Italian suit.

At the very least it might make them think you are some weirdo in love with your chainsaw.
Now, is that a bad thing?

©lms 2011

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating - and there's irony in your comment about wood-burning abilities being forward thinking. Not so long ago central heating was our future.