I am cutting firewood near my home in northwest Montana when my old chainsaw, plagued by various ailments, finally sputters and dies. In suddenly quiet woods, I inhale its last cough of hydrocarbons and consider the pile of logs at my feet. It’s far short of our winter heating needs. Overhead, golden cottonwoods rattle a warning: I’ll soon run out of time to gather this year’s firewood.
The next day I buy a new saw, which comes complete with a burly plastic carrying case. No doubt it’s sexy, its powerful bar protruding from the engine housing, its plastics gleaming. But there’s more to a chainsaw, nags my conscience. Its carburetor is manufactured in China, then shipped across the ocean. The oil and gas I’ll feed it each year, while trivial in gallons, depend on a web of drills, chemicals, pipelines, and refineries. Across the globe, they fuel war and turn the planet’s carbon cycle inside out, pushing the climate toward chaos. And what of the saw’s future? Ultimately, its plastics are destined for a landfill, where they’ll leach petrochemicals for decades. It all seems an extravagant cost for a little firewood.
Years earlier, as a Forest Service wilderness ranger in Colorado, I learned to use a two-person crosscut saw. I loved the smell of fresh-cut logs unmarred by gassy smoke and the swish of the metal blade through heartwood. The short reach of that unmistakable sound made the woods feel like they went on forever. It was surprisingly efficient, too.
I begin wondering if I can cut our firewood by crosscut. The woodstove only heats part of the house, requiring under two cords annually. Yet, already two weeks past the first frost, this might not be the best time to experiment with outdated technology.
I hop on the Internet and quickly find scores of used crosscuts for around $60 apiece. They’re in Maine, Oregon, Michigan, idled around the country since chainsaws became common in the 1950s. A little impulsively, I buy a two-person felling saw with a six-foot blade and a shorter one-person bucking saw with a D-shaped hickory handle.
Waiting for the tools to arrive, I’m eager to put them to work and somewhat confident I can cut enough wood before winter. Nevertheless, I decide to hang onto the chainsaw as back-up, then hopefully return it for a refund. But I don’t yet realize how much I’ll enjoy cutting by hand. In the months ahead, the exercise and satisfaction easily offset the labor. But more than that, working without a motor heightens my awareness of the world around me, throwing open new doors of perception on the place where I live. It makes the saws an unexpectedly good bargain.
I carry the two-person saw into the woods one chilly October afternoon. At a fallen Douglas fir about 14 inches across, I axe away a swath of furrowed bark, then plant the saw’s teeth into wood scarred by meandering beetles. With short strokes I easily open a kerf, or cut. Moving back a few steps, I apply more of the six-foot blade. Soon I’m rocking back and forth, the steel blade sinking into the tree. I recall the freedom of my ranger days in Colorado, hiking mountain trails with a crosscut over my shoulder, its teeth sheathed in a splayed section of fire hose.
But within minutes the saw binds. I push, and its thin blade bends ahead of me. I pull, and it jolts to a stop. Now embedded in the log, the teeth are too dull to cut any further. I realize the saw is useless until I find someone trained in the archaic art of crosscut sharpening.
Holding onto the chainsaw suddenly seems like a good idea. But before I relent to its temptation, I want to try the shorter crosscut on some of the smaller logs littering our patch of woods.
The forest surrounding our home is one of North America’s finest. Here on the west side of the Northern Rockies, a trick of weather and geography creates a unique mingling of Pacific Northwest rainforest with drier forests of the inland Rocky Mountains. The resulting diversity includes western red cedars and western hemlocks, more usual denizens of the coast, and the ponderosas and lodgepoles more common in the Rockies. White pine, larch, grand fir, aspen, and others are here, too. Some attain magnificent size, another anomaly for the Rockies. It’s evidenced by the huge stumps in our woods, the remains of big cedars and firs that must have harkened Washington’s coastal rainforest before a logging outfit cleared the land in the 1940s.
Today, smaller second-growth surrounds the house, but it’s an unhealthy forest. Like millions of acres across the West, including many national forest lands, it’s starved of fire. Before the birth of the U.S. Forest Service in the early 20th century, frequent, low-intensity fires shaped these woods. Creeping along the ground, sometimes for weeks, they consumed litter and thinned young growth, often leaving mature trees unharmed. The fires flushed nutrients into the soil, prompting a surge of forbs that fed bears, elk, and others. The regularity of small fires decreased the frequency of big ones, the kind that roar through canopies, leap canyons, and torch millions of trees.
But the Forest Service ended all that. A pivotal event was the Big Blowup of 1910, an August firestorm that scorched three million acres in the Northern Rockies. With flames swirling hundreds of feet high—fueling winds that could pull a man from his saddle—it wiped out forests and towns and routed the rangers sent to fight it. It forever scarred the young Forest Service, created only five years earlier by Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt. Fixated on fire suppression for the next century, the agency attempted to banish the “dragon” from the nation’s commercially valuable forests.
Today’s legacy is millions of acres of overcrowded woods susceptible to the whims of a changing climate, including the catastrophic fires and massive beetle outbreaks we see today. Informed by the latest science, modern foresters urge landowners dwelling near national forests to thin their woods, restoring forest health and reducing fuel for the inevitable fires. For many of us, it means tons of firewood.
I find a couple of small firs lying atop each other. I axe away their desiccated limbs, then begin cutting their thin ends with my shorter saw, steadying them with a gloved hand. Although this saw also needs a tune, I soon amass two wheelbarrow loads of firewood, which I cart to the woodshed and stack.
During the next hour I fall into a comfortable rhythm. The exercise feels good and I regain confidence about supplying this year’s firewood by hand. But slowly, the true reward of cutting by hand becomes apparent. As I work, I’m aware of chickadees chitting from birch trees and a flicker somewhere up the hill. With my eyes focused on the logs I am cutting, the bird songs describe the rolling geography around me.
Then there is a loud clatter. Stopping mid-stroke, I turn to see a squall of yellow leaves fly from the topmost branches of a tall cottonwood. The stiff leaves clap against each other as they spiral downward, weighty stems at the lead. When another breeze sweeps the treetop, releasing hundreds more leaves, I suddenly appreciate that the sound of autumn leaves has risen above the shallow noise of my crosscut. Without a motor, I am more aware of the land.
The gusts strengthen as I work. Thousands of leaves from cottonwoods, aspens, and birches sail through the air with the distinctive clatter of a Rocky Mountain autumn. Leaves become stranded in fir trees, adorning their green boughs with orange, yellow, and gold ornaments.
This is no ordinary fall day. It isn’t the strength of the breeze, but the readiness of the leaves to fly. With that, the day’s minor weather disturbance pushes the landscape across a threshold between autumn and winter. By tomorrow morning, the trees will look different, their generally emptied figures portending the frozen earth and short days ahead.
I imagine the scene unfolding across the Northern Rockies. North into British Columbia and west into Idaho, the same breezes cast millions of leaves into the air. Along canyons, hillsides, and valley floors, they flutter downward like our region’s answer to a tickertape parade, littering thoroughfares like the Clark Fork, Clearwater, and Flathead Rivers, and all their wild rumbling tributaries. Across untold miles, they settle into fir trees and matt the forest floor, from the most remote river bend in the Selway-Bitterroot to the long lakeshores of Glacier National Park. And across a thousand rural properties like mine, where people eke out all kinds of lives dwarfed by mountains.
Just as the leaves glance off my shoulder, I know they also land miles away, on a grizzly bear grubbing through a meadow for late-season tubers or a pack of wolves napping among conifers. As if by confirmation, I notice a young deer staring at me from across the yard, chewing on cottonwood leaves that were unavailable an hour ago, food delivered on a breeze.
I resume cutting, but am distracted by every event—a nuthatch pecking a winter roost in a rotten snag, a splash of sunlight across the forest floor, which conjures ghostly wisps of steam from a moist log. Later, when I hang the saws in the woodshed, I regard them anew. This was a beautiful autumn afternoon—a key moment in the shift between seasons—and I was engaged in it like none I could remember. I owed the experience to these old saws, which slowed and quieted my work.
With half a cord of wood cut, I return the chainsaw in early November, committing to the crosscuts. From scrap lumber I build a sawbuck, a wooden stand that cradles logs at hip height. Now, instead of bending over fallen trees, where I tangle my blade in brush, I simply buck logs into lengths I can heave onto the sawbuck, then quickly reduce them to firewood while standing.
Next, I call Fred, who lives 15 miles away and sharpens crosscuts for the trail crews in the nearby Bob Marshall Wilderness. Fred is retired, and sharpening provides a little income and keeps him connected to stewardship of local lands. His shop is his garage, where the radio plays tinny country music and his cat named Cat slinks along the workbench, among files, hammers, and tooth gauges. Fred, his flannel shirt tucked into jeans, buffs my rusty saws and sharpens them to perfection.
Sharpening a crosscut demands precision. Each tooth—and a six-footer might have 60—must be filed to lethal sharpness and kept consistent with the others, ensuring equal glide in both directions. Just as important is the set of the teeth. Each is bent slightly outward, one to the right, the next to the left. It enables the saw to open a kerf barely wider than the blade, eliminating drag.
A good sharpener was vital to the muddy timber camps of the 19th century, keeping the trees falling and the bosses happy as an outfit chewed its way up valleys of virgin timber. After the arrival of chainsaws, sharpening might have become a lost art if it weren’t for the Forest Service’s response to the 1964 Wilderness Act, which prohibits motors in federal wilderness areas. While other agencies ignored the law’s implications for trail maintenance, Forest Service crews adopted crosscuts for work in wilderness. The approach spread, and today there are many like Fred, earning a wage sharpening the saws that keep popular wilderness trails open, from the Chiricahuas of Arizona to Mount Rainier and even back east to New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness. The Wilderness Act, passed to preserve solitude and natural conditions on our public lands, incidentally assured a future for the crosscut saw.
With sharp saws, cutting takes on new pleasure. I fly through the logs, each stroke emitting a gentle fountain of spirally shavings that spray against my jeans and settle around my boots. My kerfs are spacious and the blade seems to float through the wood. And my saws sing, with a coarse, two-tone music.
Through November, I cut for an hour after work a couple times each week, then maybe a longer shift on weekends. When my arms get tired, I load the wheelbarrow with logs and haul them to the shed to split and stack. As I work, the land readies itself for winter. The tall grasses in the meadow crumple under the weight of frost, and silvery ice crystals glaze the edges of fallen leaves. Snow flirts with the mountaintops, whitening them for a few days, then retreating when temperatures rise.
When my wife Barbara helps, she nearly doubles my speed. One day we fell a 70-foot snag near the house and buck it into firewood in an hour, chatting over the swish of the blade. As we work, we learn the delicate give-and-take of successful sawing. It’s a physical negotiation that is awkward at first, but settles into a natural rhythm.
The sounds of the land still rise above my cutting. During afternoons in mid-November, the earth hardening beneath my boots, rifles occasionally boom from nearby hills and I know someone is about to begin the careful work of dressing a deer or elk. Working into the cold dusk, coyotes yip and howl in the distance, gossiping as the neighborhood dogs bark like crazy from their pens and porches. A freight train’s horn blasts to the south, reminding me of the greater landscape. I know the train is lugging a mile-long load of coal past fields and farmhouses, having just wound downward from the Continental Divide. Tomorrow it will be in Vancouver, unloading Wyoming coal onto ships bound for China.
In the third week of November, with patches of snow now lingering in the shadows, the larch needles come down. The larch is a rare deciduous conifer whose needles shine golden yellow late each autumn. The change peaks after the aspens and others have shed their leaves, a brilliant encore of fall color. Shortly before the arrival of the first real snow, the needles fade rusty orange and lose their grip. I’m lucky to be cutting on the breezy afternoon when it happens. The needles flurry downward, leaving a dusting of orange on the driveway and the forest floor.
Through late November, the valley’s weather vacillates between snow, rain, and a freezing fog that turns the trees gossamer. Snow buries the mountaintops, while the sun becomes an occasional smudge in the clouds, low on the horizon. It’s like this most of the winter, as a timeless river of cloud flows inland from the Pacific Northwest.
Cutting one afternoon, I glimpse the red crest of a pileated woodpecker across the woods. Propped against its black tail, it hammers a chiseled beak into one of the thick stumps from the logging era, wood maybe six centuries old.
I’ve seen the bird here before, arriving afternoons to work the big stumps. I realize the bird and I know this neighborhood differently. I define it by rectangular property lines, ski trails, the road to town. But the woodpecker knows it by individual stumps and snags. Driven from its roost each morning by hunger, it flies between familiar food sources. The big dead pine at my neighbor’s place, the siding of my house, a charred cedar two miles away that burned in 1910. They are the landmarks on the woodpecker’s internal map.
Working through copious deadfall on the forest floor, I become familiar with the location of the best wood, the dry logs that will quickly ignite in our stove. I know where the green logs are, too, the ones I’ll let season another year. And the rotten logs, which I’ll leave to nourish the soil and shelter wildlife. Regular snow will arrive any day, turning all this a uniform white, so I map it in my mind as I work. In the process, my perception of the land evolves. The property lines recede behind a richer awareness of the forest: the good firewood, a wonderfully crooked young cedar, the narrow paths that lead to deer beds tucked beneath firs. These become relevant landmarks, and I begin seeing the land more like the woodpecker than the surveyor.
By early December I have enough wood. I enjoy a John Henry kind of moment, having beaten the arrival of winter with my old handsaws. My logs are stacked neatly in the shed, and I’ve never looked on a woodpile with greater satisfaction. Nevertheless, I keep cutting a couple times each week, partly for insurance, partly to continue thinning the forest. Until the big snows arrive, I more or less cut what we burn, keeping the woodpile steady.
The snow is still patchy after the first week of December. It’s late again this year and the snow-ready earth looks bored. The tall grasses in the meadow lay flat, and a few withered leaves dangle from barren birch trees. The sun is so low and the sky so thick with cloud that even midday doesn’t seem fully light.
We finally get a couple good snows in mid-December, then the clouds blow away one night and the temperature plummets to 20 below. The next day the high is zero. After a ski tour, I go back outside to cut wood, not because we’re behind, but because winter is finally here and I want to enjoy it.
Cold snow squeaks beneath my boots as I cross the tracks of fox, deer, and a snowshoe hare. As I begin cutting, my nose hairs freeze and my breath turns to white rime on my collar. With my hands aching from cold, I cut with long strokes, rocking back and forth to generate heat. Sawdust sprays from either end of the kerf, turning the snow blond. Over the steady song of my saw, trees pop as the cold expands their water to ice. It echoes through the forest every few minutes, loud as a pistol.
I am warm after a few logs. After eight, I carry them to the woodshed, tromping through a foot of snow. I dump them in a pile and begin splitting, each producing four good pieces, maybe a third of what we burn on an average night. Cutting by hand makes us frugal with our fires, only lighting them when necessary and carefully maximizing their heat. It reflects our heightened awareness of energy’s cost, a price we’ve paid with labor. We have no such relationship with our gas stove. Like the coal that powers our lights, the gas is invisible, fracked from unknown landscapes by the hands of strangers, leaving poisoned aquifers beneath neighborhoods we’ll never visit. Disconnected from these costs, we spend the cheap energy like loose change.
Stacking the logs on the woodpile, I envision them warming us a night at a time through the months ahead. Maybe we’ll read by the fire one night while this log burns, or this one may dry laundry hanging above the stove. It works the other way, too. The next evening when I throw a birch log on the fire, I recall the way a rare buck cautiously stepped across the yard the day I cut it. In this way, our firewood takes on a richness similar to wild food. Like the berries we put away last summer, the logs are enlivened with memory, connecting us to the land we inhabit.
On winter solstice I cut a few last logs near the driveway, the snow in the woods now too deep for walking. In the following weeks, the days are short and cold with steady snowfall. The world becomes pillowed in snow, from the ground to the treetops. My sawbuck is half-buried beside the woodshed, and my saws hang idle. This is deep winter in the Northern Rockies, when sun is rare and snow insulates our lives.
I’m done cutting for the year, but I’ll never look at the forest the same. It’s gained new texture in my mind. And sometimes when I look out the window, I catch myself thinking ahead to next autumn, when I hope to be back among the chickadees and woodpeckers and the steady song of my crosscut saws.
Header photo of cut firewood by moritz320, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Tim Lydon and his daughter in the Bob Marshall Wilderness courtesy Tim Lydon.