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Woodland Trails: Elm trees and a warm fire

"There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from a furnace. So to avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden. To avoid the second, one should lay a split of good oak, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside."

Not an exact quote from Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac" but close enough to make a point about what life was like all across the land in the not-so-distant past and yet still is to many living in the northern snow belt today. I've heated with wood on and off for several years, and for those who don't know or understand wood heat, let me say that nothing is better than wood heat on a cold night.

You not only get a heat that warms the entire house, floors, walls and roof, but you get a soft aroma that returns your inner consciousness to a simpler time by the work involved in heating with wood. As they say, a person is heated twice when you heat with wood. The first is when you lay it up and the second when it is burned.

Last year when I moved into the homestead, I was lucky to have already had in place a full winter's supply of wood. Good oak, in fact. Oak provides hard, clean burning and is the most popular house-heating wood, but there are others, as I have discovered. One that I have truly fell in love with is elm.

With the sad death of so many elms to disease, elm is a common wood to find to burn in a furnace. And it leaves longer lasting coals than oak, which surprised me! This summer with all the wind storms I lost several dead elms to storms. You might wonder why I "lost dead elms" to storms? The reason is, dead trees are a vital part of nature. Many animal and insect species that live in the northern snow belt rely on dead trees.

One such creature is the supposedly secretive little green night heron. I had them in my dead trees all summer. They raised their young in the dead trees all around the homestead. Secretive, my foot. You just need a creek nearby and some dead trees to have your own rookery of secretive birds so they are as common as robins to your home's viewing.

I found that dead elm is a true hardwood. In fact, some of the dead elm I attempt to put up with the chainsaw reminded me more of cement than wood -- hard and tough to cut, even tougher to split.

Oak splits fairly straight and true because the grain is straight and true. That is why it makes such good round oak tables and chairs. I know that for a fact by living with my parents in their latter years in my parents' business, Stonehouse Antiques. There, my parents, Earl and Marian Bennett, worked wood and sold fine glass pieces for years after retiring from farming.

But elm is a different story. You don't find elm furniture. You don't find people liking to split elm with a wedge and maul either. Elm has no true direction with its wood grain. It's twisted and hangs on with tooth and nail so as not to split. It fights a man with a wedge trying to split major logs with a maul. Luckily I have a power splitter that takes most of the work from this job, but elm still puts major pressure on the hydraulic system.

But the main reason I look at losing dead elms to storms as a sad thing is because of the woodpeckers that depend on dead trees for their survival. When was the last time, if ever, you have seen a red headed woodpecker? As a kid growing up in Pierce County, I saw them everywhere all the time. With that brilliant red head and black and white body, they were and still are a breathtaking bird to behold. But they never seemed to be too smart. They had a bad habit of feeding too close to roads for some reason and often ended up in the front of old three- and four-hole Buicks or '57 Chevys. More wood heat means less trees for woodpeckers when the trees are dropped for food by saw and ax.

I was lucky that one major-league-size elm went down in a storm less than a hundred yards from the house. Walking out to examine it, I laid out a plan and went about cutting up the limbs and main trunk to heat the homestead this winter. It was hard on my chain saw and eventually put it in the shop. I worked up a sweat cutting, loading, unloading and stacking the wood. But it took me back to a time on the farm when we went out in the woods and chopped wood as a family using the flywheel on the old John Deere "A" to run the belt-driven saw. It was cold hard work.

After the chainsaw went down on me I ended up in the kitchen drinking several glasses of cold water to rejuvenate myself. Looking out the window I noticed a replacement crew of one working on the dead elm -- a giant pileated woodpecker was pounding on the dead elm trunk that I left standing. Huge chunks of wood were flying everywhere. This big bird pounded that elm silly with its devastatingly hard bill and strong but small neck muscles. Around and up and down the tree it went. I took out my binoculars to watch and see if the big bird found any grubs or worms for all its hard labor. I saw none eaten.

It was as if the big Woody Woodpecker was just showing off. Showing me how easy it was to pound down a dead elm. It continued the show for nearly 30 minutes before it took off, either proud of its work or full of grubs I knew not. I do know the big bird made it all look simple but it only got warmed once!