The Forest Hotel

The Forest Hotel

This post is part of a series contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the previous post here.

Working up the year’s supply of firewood takes some doing. Sometimes I succumb to woodchopper’s zealotry to get the job done. Oak makes mighty fine firewood, giving me the most for my effort, and with that in mind, I sized up a huge red oak that had clearly seen better days a long time ago.

base of an old red oak surrounded by fall foliage

Many of the great gnarled branches were dead, bare of bark and twigs. Indeed, some of them were missing altogether, their half-rotted remains strewn about the forest floor like the ribs of an ancient elephant. In their place, I could see swollen-rimmed holes, dark with the mystery of what might be living within.

The trunk of this behemoth was much too big for felling by ordinary means; I had to cut my v-notch from both sides of its generous girth. The assault began with a chainsaw’s merciless growl. As I buried it into that tired, old trunk, a sluggish garter snake slithered out from a wide crack by my feet and disappeared into the leafy carpet.

I could feel the saw break into the oak’s hollow interior, making me mindful to not cut away too much; there was a lot of wood high overhead. I had to be sure to leave enough solid hinge-wood to safely drop the tree into the clearing I had prepared.

Bearing down, I cut the last of the notch and eased the big, wedge-shaped piece of wood out of the way. Out poured hundreds, thousands, of fat carpenter ants amid an avalanche of dark brown granulated wood, rotted to the consistency of turkey stuffing. I shoveled it out with my saw blade till there was a sizable pile on the ground, teeming with panicked ants.

Then, out of that opening, fell stuffing of another sort – chewed up grasses and leaves, the fluffy nesting of mice. And out jumped the mice, four of them, alarmed in the extreme with all the noise and confusion. Three were off like a shot; the fourth ran up the trunk and dove into a hole six feet farther up the trunk.

Committed, I began carefully cutting on the back side of the trunk. I was taking my time; this tree was a giant. Then, finally, very slowly, the canopy opened overhead, and that giant leaned, creaking loudly, and heaved itself to the ground with a thunderous crash, dead branches snapping and flying every which way in a cloud of dust and debris.

Far along the now prone trunk was one of the large holes where a branch had been. As I sawed off limbs in stove-wood lengths, I neared that knothole, chainsaw growling. All of a sudden, a grey squirrel leaped out and scrambled off, disoriented, in a desperate state. I was sure, for him, nothing seemed where it ought to be.
I continued dissecting that old tree into lengths of firewood until there were hundreds of them in scattered piles, along with an impressive end-to-end jumble, looking like a train wreck, of the huge chunks from the main trunk and bigger branches, all destined for my woodshed and, later, the cheerful flames of cold winter nights.

It was of course too late to undo what I had done; I realized I was the unwitting agent who had just brought an end to an era – that of The Forest Hotel.

With every section that dropped free, I found further evidence of the generations that had lived their lives within those oak walls. Much of the tree was hollow. There were more nests and some evidence of raccoons. I found the feather of a yellow-shafted flicker. There were spiders and worms and salamanders too.

These were the signs that met my eye. I didn’t need to know more. I had done enough, and I now had more than enough firewood to last till next spring.

two piles of split firewood

Barnaby PorterArtist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. Barnaby currently serves on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees. For more about Barnaby, click here.

Squirrel courtesy of Architect of the Capital. Firewood image by Barnaby Porter.