I have been out splitting wood in the dark. That probably sounds weird. Dr. Wifey thinks it is dangerous and periodically flashes on the yard light to make sure I am not bleeding from severed limbs. Wives are funny that way.

I have persisted at this activity for many years without mishap and will continue because I find it very therapeutic. When you have the sweet spot on the maul handle and just the right distance from the blocks and the swings are all hitting in a perfectly straight line across the face of the block, it is quite zenny. It is certainly far more relaxing and reaffirming than the latest craze touted by the enlightened crowd — goat yoga.

Tonight, however, I found it more difficult to achieve a state of mindfulness. There are a couple of reasons. The first was the fact that, as I walked out to the pile there was a huge commotion in the woods. It was either something very large or something very clumsy. Snow crackled, branches broke and a couple of huge thumps were heard. Being somewhat time-limited with this column looming, I did not go investigate and therefore, remained just a bit spooky as I worked with my back toward the auroch or thylacine lurking in the dark.

I have been limiting my maul work to whacking the big rounds into chunks I can lift onto the splitter without feeling my back rip. Therefore, I had higher hopes for the final stage of making the chunks into stove wood on the power splitter. Although I wear good hearing protection, I can still hear the steady thrum of the motor to accompany the headworm that always starts at these times. Usually wood work is accompanied by bagpipe music, often starting with Scotland The Brave.

Tonight it was different. When I walked into the office this morning, there were a few dollar bills and some quarters on the desk. When I asked where it came from, the answer was that someone left it for honey. Of course, I asked “who,” and they said “Sylvia.” That narrowed it down to the seven or eight Sylvias I know but they both blanked on the last name. I prodded, got nothing except, “Oh you know who,” and as I continued to pressure them someone blurted out, “Hey maybe it was Sylvia’s mother.”

At this they laughed uproariously but I had no clue why. Seems there is a song by that name and within moments it was playing over the speakers of a computer as they giggled about reliving their childhood. I vaguely remembered it and also remembered which Sylvia it was so just went along my way. However, tonight as I worked, that stupid song was all I could conjure up as internal background music. I thought the evening was lost until, as I made a split on a dark-colored log, the fragrance of wintergreen suddenly filled the air. For some reason, this delicious odor banished the pop music and let my mind begin to relax and shed the day as I worked.

Back inside, I was contemplating my vegetative assistant, a tree known as black birch. Further south, it is more commonly called sweet birch. The kids were always wanting me to seek out such a tree and cut them twigs to chew on during woods walks. When we had a fire and lunch during family wood gathering outings, I was expected to produce somewhat larger sticks they could chew into impromptu tooth brushing utensils. Ordinarily, in deference to such memories, I do not cut black birch — the tree responsible for the wintergreen scent. This time, working on trees felled by summer storms, it was there at exactly the right moment.

When birch is mentioned, one’s mind typically goes to the dramatic white paper birch, but there are actually several species in the birch family. Black birch is native to North America found along the eastern seaboard from Southern Ontario to the Appalachians. In some areas in the Appalachian range, black birch is the dominant species. It is very common throughout New York state.

When it is younger, black birch bark has decidedly maroon overtones to its shiny bark and both trunk and limbs are marked with elongated horizontal white spots called lenticals. When the tree gets to be about 20, the smooth bark disappears and the bark becomes dark colored, rough and shaggy.

Black birch has a number of commercial uses. The wood has nice grain patterns but its claim to fame is its ability to oxidize quickly. The boards are often aged and used as a low cost replacement for dark mahogany. It is used extensively in producing veneers and, in areas of good abundance, it is sought after for pulp wood. It is used to make high-end cardboards and durable backerboard applications.

The most common use has been the production of wintergreen oil. Extracted by distilling from both bark and wood, this essential oil has been used for its antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, insecticidal and antioxidant properties. The oil gathered from the roots and lower trunk of the black birch is the primary ingredient of the popular soda called Birch Beer. As synthetics were developed, the harvest of black birch diminished but nowadays as the push is for natural products, black birch is becoming a desirable commodity once again.

It make no difference to me. While I appreciate its ability to banish Sylvia’s Mother from my psyche, in my woodlot, the black birch will stand ready to provide an interesting taste to an afternoon saunterer.

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Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


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