Just deeply impressed. Notching can't be rushed, and the log work wasn't finished 20 Log Walls, Big Dipper until the first week of October. On October 7 we had our first snowfall; it melted quickly, but the handwriting was on the wall. We raced to erect the second story and get a roof over it, determined to battle the elements. The first week of December found us nailing plywood to the rafters.
It was 5 degrees below zero, and the roof was so icy that we had to tie ourselves to the peak and work at the ends of ropes like mountain climbers. I realized then that winter had won.
Every day through the rest of the winter I checked on our house. As the snow piled up and the northwest wind swirled it through the openings where doors and windows should have been, I felt pangs of impatience and frustrated ambition. But winter can claim only a temporary victory, and by the following July we had moved in. It was worth the wait.
Letters From Side Lake: A Chronicle of Life in the North Woods
For now on winter nights we watch firelight flickering along those log walls. With birch wood glowing in the stove, the logs glisten a burnished golden brown, in and out of dancing shadow. And I take pleasure in the knowledge that outside our door, in the dark northern sky, the bright stars of the Big Dipper are slowly circling Polaris. That sad fact is evident when you look at almost any gardening book.
Go ahead, pick one off the shelf at random. Turn to the first chapter and begin reading. Do you see the great assumption, the crucial article of faith that is invariably taken for granted? It's hard to see at first, because most of us are long divorced from the wilderness. That's a hint. For what is assumed is the pre-existence of the garden plot itself. Oh, some books talk about soil building, organic fertilization, and such, but it's still considered a given that you have a cleared expanse of ground to begin with.
Have you ever seen a discussion about cutting trees, pulling stumps, burning brush, and digging rocks—-just to get to the point where you can finally start worrying about soil husbandry? Probably not. For most of the country, that dismal chore was performed decades, or centuries, ago by generally poor, overworked, and short-lived slaves-to-the-land whom we now glamorize with the term "pioneers.
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I know I do. It's not that I'm in the same league with nineteenth-century 22 Battleground homesteaders. We cleared a measly half acre of land. Having endured that token initiation into the rigors of pioneering, I can't imagine opening up forty, eighty, or a hundred and sixty acres. It boggles the back. I pulled about fifty stumps with hand tools, and my mind is numbed to think of, say, five hundred stumps.
Even if I had the benefit of an ox or a horse to aid in the extraction, it would be a daunting task. I have a lot of respect for the pioneers. Of course there are Indians alive today who still consider the whole enterprise to have been a tragic waste of time, energy, and forest, and when you drive through certain parts of the "improved" landscape—Gary, Indiana, comes to mind—it's easy to agree. And I often do, but I pulled stumps anyway. Should I have done this?
When we purchased our forty acres it was "raw" land—woods, brush, and bog—which had been logged twice since but had never been lived on. Stumps had been created, but none ever pulled. The lofty old red and white pines, the "virgin" timber, had been cut and the land left to naturally regenerate in aspen, balsam, and spruce.
The biggest trees of this second generation had been logged about five years before we bought the forty, and the forest was supporting the further growth and regrowth of these species. There were no clearings as such. We took possession of the land in the spring of and quickly decided upon a garden site.
We thought it would be nice to at least get some potatoes into the ground that first season, but it didn't happen; there was just too much to be done. The road, the well, the house, all took precedence the real pioneers would have established that garden at all costs , and it wasn't until the following spring that the spuds made it into the soil. But I worked off and on at clearing the garden site over the course of the summer, and it wasn't too bad at first.
A chain saw, in this case my only concession to the twentieth century, made felling the trees and bucking them up for firewood a relatively easy chore. There was some heavy lifting, but what the hell, it was in the job description. Slashing the brush—mostly 23 Letters from Side Lake hazel and alder with ferns, grass, and raspberry bushes—was tougher, but if I kept the edge of the brush hook sharp and swung it with authority, I made satisfactory progress.
Once I had it down, I raked and tossed the brush into one huge stack, and we enjoyed a spectacular bonfire when the first snow arrived the following November. Later we spread the ashes over the cleared area to help raise the pH of the soil. It was all sweaty work, but it went quickly. The stumps, however, were a battle. The several largest, eighteen to twenty-four inches in diameter, were like fortresses to be conquered.
I had to lay a series of terrible sieges until they were broken.
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My weapons were the simple and timeless implements of cold steel: shovel, pick, axe, and long iron bar. It was bitter work—no quarter asked, and none given. I launched each assault by digging in. Ramming home the blade of the shovel with my heavy lug-soled boot, I burrowed around the roots, trying to slice the smaller, stringy ones in half at the same time. They seemed to be everywhere, waiting in ambush to deflect my blade, preventing a penetration which would undermine the large, meaty roots visible from the surface. But I thrust and stomped with vigor, becoming angrier and more violent each time the shovel bounced off a small, rubbery runner.
I jabbed harder, twisting and shoving, and eventually broke through to looser soil, which I scooped out and cast aside, uncovering the moist, light-colored underside of the main roots.
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When the stump was surrounded, girdled by a ragged ditch, the roots exposed to cruel, dry air, I hefted my double-bit axe. Each side was honed to a wicked, glinting edge, as sharp as a butcher's knife. The three-pound head, at the end of a thirtysix-inch handle, could be brought to bear with horrible force. I raised it high over my right shoulder, then fiercely swung down, my whole torso behind the blow.
There was a satisfying woody thunk, and the axe cut halfway through the root. I yanked it out and swung again, a little to one side ot the first gash. The chips flew, scattering like shrapnel, and I struck again and again, mer24 Battleground cilessly. The fifth blow severed the root and the axe plunged into the dirt beneath.
There was a hard, grinding jolt, and I saw a spark fly. There was a rock underneath. I wrenched the axe free and examined the edge. An inch of it was flattened. I flung it aside and grabbed the pick. With a savage looping swing I wedged the point under the root on the side of the cut away from the stump, driving it in up to the handle.
Then, grasping the end of the handle, I pulled it away, leaning back with my whole pounds. For a moment I strained, grunting, and then the root gave way, ripping out of the ground in a shower of dirt. I fell back on my butt. The root had parted the soil for a length of three feet, sticking up like the tentacle of some horrid subterranean beast. I jumped up and grabbed the end, tearing it back and wresting it out of the earth. At five feet it cracked, and I twisted and yanked until it broke off. At the stump, another blow with the pick gouged the rock out of the soil.
I took the fist-sized chunk of granite and spitefully threw it as far off into the woods as I could. Then, wielding the unblemished edge of the axe, I hacked and chopped and bashed my way through the remaining half dozen roots, hewing them off and pulling them out.
That is, all of the easy ones. Each balsam also had a stubborn taproot, a large member that grew straight down from the stump and often held it securely even after all the other roots had been cut and torn away. To get at this devilish anchor I had to attack the stump itself, using the pick or the axe to rip or chop off chunks of the tough, intractable wood.
Sometimes I brandished a six-pound splitting maul, sundering the stump with brute force. When I could finally see the taproot, I grabbed the five-foot bar with both hands and cocked it back like a spear. I yelled and plunged the point deep into the ground alongside the root.