According to the Rand McNally mileage calculator, I am five thousand, two hundred and nineteen point four miles from home. It seems much farther. The world I live in now is unfamiliar in many ways—in most ways, really.
The home of my heart is found on Lazy Mountain in Palmer, Alaska. A hundred and sixty acres of wooded land is where I grew up with my brothers and sisters. Our little house was heated with wood … always. There is something very comforting about the crackling of a wood fire—watching the flames dance in the open grate and the smoky fragrance. I loved sitting with my back to the fire on cold winter nights in my younger days, always mindful of shooting sparks. As kids my siblings and I knew our job was to extinguish any stray meteor that made it as far as the braided rug on the living room floor—very important!
Anyone who relies on wood as a primary source of heat knows this is not a casual commitment. Too bad there isn’t a way to calculate the endless hours my father and our family spent gathering and processing firewood. Even before the snow flew, we spent many weekends stockpiling spruce and birch. As a child I knew the difference between the two types of wood. Spruce is light, quick to burn, and great for starting fires. Birch is like a long haul trucker, a couple dense rounds will last all night once the damper is turned down. Back then if someone had handed me a few chunks of birch and told me to get a fire started, I would have given them a look—one that said, “You really don’t know much about starting fires, do you?” Growing up on a homestead equipped me with practical tools … ones which aren’t as useful living in Florida.
Keeping a bountiful supply of split wood laid in the basement was a top priority for our family and we all knew it. Thankfully we were blessed with land, the tools and kid power to keep the home fires burning round the clock in those winter months.
Before our family left Pennsylvania for Alaska in 1958, my father bought a John Deere dozer. It was a hugely expensive investment back then, but without it harvesting trees from the far reaches of the woods would have been impossible. We gave our dozer the nickname “Putt, Putt” because of its distinctive sound.
Fifty-five years later it is still “putt putting” across the property. Dad is gone now, but his dozer is still plowing snow and bringing in the firewood. My brothers all learned to operate it as kids and now grandkids proudly sit on the much-repaired seat, taking their turns figuring out how “Putt, Putt” shifts… It has always been a cranky old thing.
On a typical Saturday during our childhood, my three brothers would go with Dad to the woods to winch in deadfalls. Girls never got to go along and I’m not completely sure why. It may have been that Dad was trying to spare us from having to spend hours out in freezing weather.
Once the trees were cut up, split and ready to toss down the hatch into the basement, we girls would “get” to come out and help. Often the north wind was blowing and being out in the cold wasn’t our first choice, or second, or third. We had no choice in the matter—Dad called it, “Time to pick up sticks!” He and my older brother split the rounds and we younger kids ran them to the hatch and threw the “sticks” down—that part was fun. Helping out with the wood gave us a sense of purpose, discipline and an appreciation of the land.
As a young girl, I remember waking up in the dark to the sound of Dad in the basement splitting wood. The ring of the sledge hammer against a splitting maul is a distinct and beautiful sound if you don’t want to step out of a warm bed into a cold house. Our father, without complaining, got up in the wee hours of the mornings to bring the banked coals back to life, taking the chill out of the air. Because of his daily sacrifice, when we woke we could stand over the grate in the kitchen and feel the warm air rising on our toes from the barrel stove below.
I’m not sure about the rest of my siblings, but I pride myself on being able to get a fire started, whether it be a campfire or in a stove, and keep it going. It isn’t a skill I use so much anymore, but it’s there if I need it.
A family joke that we all share is about Mom and her tendency to burn just about anything in the Franklin stove in the living room, just to “get some heat out of it.” This included plastics which do not smell as lovely as spruce or birch when burned. During her eighty years she started several chimney fires by burning paper garbage in the living room stove. The loud rumbling sound of fire gone amuck in the chimney was unforgettable. It gave me a healthy respect for the danger of a runaway fire. We were lucky Mom’s chimney fires never spread to the roof or caused any lasting damage.
My older sister, who attended the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, remembers the family driving three hundred miles from the mountain to visit her at school. She knew we had arrived by the smell of wood smoke on our clothes that reached her even before we showed up at her dorm room. It was our calling card. The scent of smoke permeated our house and everything in it, including us. After Mom and Dad died in 2010, I gathered up some favorite childhood books from our home. Opening them up wide I could smell faint traces of wood smoke lingering between the pages.
Fifty-two hundred miles away in southwest Florida, I think about this missing piece in my life—the wood heat of my childhood, the nostalgia and family memories it represents. Not only am I living without crackling fires, but I’ll be spending my first ever Christmas without snow. I asked one native Floridian what folks do down here at Christmas surrounded by palm trees and green grass. “We go to the beach!” was her happy answer.
Each summer when I return to the mountain, my younger brother Dan builds a giant “welcome home” bonfire out of logs. We joke about it being so big, townspeople in the valley below will see it and wonder. As our family gathers around, we laugh and share memories under the midnight sun.
When the fire finally burns down to coals, l walk away. Around my shoulders rests a blanket of comforting wood smoke … I know I am home.
By Eva Pollock