Firewood and speculation


More than a third of November has already passed. Thanksgiving is fast approaching.

Time’s river keeps eternally flowing.

I know it’s not the sort of news most want to hear, but winter—both calendar season and icy fact—is just around the corner.

Why, I wonder, does spring arrive so slowly while autumn always flies past in a rush?

We anachronistic types who still heat our homes with a wood-burning stove, must—by necessity—keep an especially close eye on the autumnal passage. Heading into November, if your woodpile isn’t adequate, you’re eventually going to freeze—a starkly simple equation with no room for argument.

I do my best to stay ahead of the game and have sufficient cords of firewood sawn, split, stacked, and seasoned—ready and waiting for whatever cold nastiness Old Man Winter wants to blow my way.

I like to feel comfortable about my prospects of remaining comfortable. It’s the same reasoning behind my well-stocked pantry.

Practically speaking, I’ve been a “prepper” for decades, since long before the term became trendy. It’s in my raising, my heritage, and probably my DNA, whether we’re talking food or fuel.

Unfortunately, uncontrollable circumstances and a natural disposition toward procrastination endeavor to thwart this ideal—at least when it comes to my woodpile. So this is why, most autumns, I’m scrambling to top off my firewood stocks.

Not that I mind the hard work. In fact, I truly enjoy it—both the physical labor plus the visual reward of watching that pile of firewood grow.

Too, I kinda like being forced to go outside on days when it would be easier to stay indoors. No, I’m neither desperate nor a masochist. I don’t work if it’s pouring rain. And my schedule is more loose than strict. But I don’t allow myself to make excuses, either, and as a bonus, enjoy hours of “extra” outdoor time.

Firewood making is a solitary task. I can simultaneously keep an eye on birds and critters while observing the seasonal progression here along the river. There’s also ample time to ponder.

Fall’s pageantry is all over for another year. Autumn’s once-colorful leaves lie in browning heaps on the ground. The denuded new landscape reflects this change in sharp relief.

Leaves, leaves everywhere! They clutter backyards and woodlands, flood trails, and pile against fences in windrows. We rake and carry them in baskets and wheelbarrows. A heretofore modest compost pile becomes a veritable Everest!

Well, not all the leaves are down. Various contrarian trees cling defiantly to their brown and increasingly wind-tattered leaves —and will continue to do so throughout the remaining weeks of autumn and most of winter. Iconoclasts, they’ll ignore nearby brethren and keep their leaves until they’re good and ready to think about putting on new green ones next spring.

Oaks are the ones we most notice, the first species we think about regarding this phenomenon. But others, notably those on beech, hornbeam, and witch hazel, are also stubbornly retained.

The fancy term for this phenomenon is marcescense— from the Latin marcescere, “to fade.” While we understand the botanical mechanics of how a marcescent plant keeps from shedding its leaves in the fall, the retention of this dead material— the why behind its design and purpose—remains a mystery, a debated subject of various theories and speculations.

Another “why” to add to our list of autumn puzzles.

A third puzzlement is the behavior of a certain big ginkgo that grows beside a local trail I regularly walk. This tree is always a reluctant holdout to the woodland’s annual undressing.

As nearby maples and hickories drop their leaves, the ginkgo perseveres, doggedly refusing to get with the program.

Maybe it just craves attention, likes being on center stage as a main-act finale. I dunno. But for whatever reason, this huge ginkgo waits until its neighbors are leafless, standing stark and skeletal—and I imagine a bit sad and embarrassed at their forced disrobing—before finally commencing to shed its brilliant yellow leaf-cloak.

Within a day the ground beneath the ginkgo becomes a sea of dazzling gold—a breathtaking king’s ransom in fallen treasure. The merest hint of sunlight streaming through any translucent leaves still clinging to the upper branches washes the scene below in rarest saffron.

Ginkgos are the only surviving example of a species that flourished during the age of the dinosaurs. They are not native to this country. Someone obviously placed the tree on this south-facing hillside. Judging from its enormous size, I’d say the tree is well over a hundred years old. Yet there’s no evidence anywhere nearby of an old homestead.

Who planted the tree? And why? Two more November questions to add to our pile.

Whatever the ginkgo’s story, I’m grateful to that unknown person who bent over this specific bit of Buckeye earth and gave the tree its start.

Time’s river has kept on flowing. The years and seasons have been good to the little tree, nurturing it through saplinghood, into maturity, and into what now appears to be a healthy old age.

Moreover, that long-ago act has, decades later, provided me the opportunity to stand upon a golden carpet and be bathed in heaven’s own sunlight.

November always reveals questions worth pondering—when cutting firewood or just spending time outside. Some answers remain elusive. But I think simply makes the seasonal journey more wonderfully worthwhile.

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