Larch Season

Early morning snow on Larch Lake

It’s been a long and warm autumn, but each day there are more signs that winter is on its way. Most of the leaves have fallen from the trees and formed hilly brown piles at the edge of the woods. My birds’ coop is filled with loose feathers — the seasonal molting of late autumn. The night comes on quickly, especially now that the clocks have fallen back. It’s snowed a few times, even though it hasn’t lasted.

The changing seasons remind you of the power of nature — how it dictates our lives, not the other way around. The shorter days shift our habits — I find myself outside hours earlier than usual, chasing the last few seconds of daylight to walk the dog. My chickens retire to their coop while I’m still working at my desk, compelling me to step outside briefly and close them in for the night. Gone are the days of long evening walks and outdoor chores — like the birds, I retire indoors once dusk hits. Sometimes it feels like nature has me by the puppet strings.

In no time, winter will be here and I’ll bend to its will, too. Winter means cold, and cold means battling to stay warm — for animals and for us. Soon, I’ll be stepping outside a few times a day to kick the black rubber bowls of water to break up the ice. And checking the forecast for day and night time temperatures every day. And burning and restocking wood.

Wood is the lifeblood of a northeast cabin and there are lots of tricks to burning it effectively. Most of operating a wood stove comes down to understanding how wood burns. The first lesson you learn is to only burn fully seasoned wood — wood which has dried out for a minimum of a year. The second lesson is that there’s no such thing as buying “seasoned” wood — no matter what someone says or what you spend, whatever you buy will be as aromatic and green as the day it was cut. So, you buy wood and you wait. The next year, you buy more, and you wait. Like the seasons, it’s non-negotiable. No rushing it; it happens on its own schedule.

We had bought wood two years in a row at the old farmhouse, and when we put that house on the market I thought maybe we’d just leave it. After hauling boxes and furniture to two storage units over several months, it was an appealing idea. But having burned through most of the cabin’s half cord last winter, we knew we needed at least that amount of wood to get through this one. So we gave in and spent several summer evenings throwing logs from The Big Property into the back of our flatbed and restacking it here. It was a cord and a half in total, and brutal, but seasoned wood is priceless: no amount of money can speed up the passage of time.

Moving wood around is a constant process even after everything is stacked. An ice cold log will reject the licking of even very aggressive flames, so you need to keep a pile sitting in a heated space for a day before you go to use it. But you don’t want to keep massive stacks of wood inside — it’s impractical and bad practice when it comes to pests. So you load some, you use it, you bring more in — you never want to leave your indoor log holder empty. Again there’s that lesson about nature and time, how it can’t be rushed. You have to prepare on its schedule, not yours.

Kindling is also important. You need a lot of it — more than you think, and then some — for starting fires. If you skimp on the twigs you won’t get the firebox warm enough, or create enough coals, to start a log. So these days I find myself spending my lunch breaks collecting sticks or ripping up cardboard, for the months ahead. You’d think this would get boring, but it’s often my favorite part of the day, wandering through the woods on the side of the property looking for good sticks and snapping them into small pieces. Things like this are good for deep thought — your mind wanders in interesting ways when you engage in rote tasks. Knitting, doing dishes, collecting sticks — they’re all good for introspection.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Larch trees lately. Larix laricina, also known as Tamarack trees, are conifers typically found around lakes and ponds. They are deciduous conifers — like pine trees, except that their needles change color in the fall, and drop to leave the trees bare all winter. I’ve heard them described as unusual but not uncommon. You can find them all over the northeast, if you know what to look for.

A mature Larch tree on the edge of the woods

This lake is named for the Larch tree, but we never knew much about them until this year. This cabin is a seasonal family residence — well, it was until we colonized it — and people only ever came here between May and October. During that time Larches just look like regular pine trees — lush, green, and nondescript — but in the very late autumn their soft needles blaze bright yellow and fade to a rich orange.

We watched for them this fall as the leaves started to change. “Is that one?” we’d say to each other, pointing at an orange tree across the lake. But nothing looked like the reference photos. By the end of October I figured we’d missed them, but then one day in early November, they appeared in a line across the lake, like glowing traffic cones. “That’s them.” we said.

It was even more exciting when we found them at our property. We bought the land at the end of the summer — one hundred and twenty acres of pristine woods and meadows on which to build our forever homestead. It still feels like a dream, after having had so many near misses — I suppose it will feel real once the house is built.

So we spend most weekends blazing trails there, discovering new areas and giving them names. Brook Trail, for the path running along the winding brook. Rock Beach, for the craggy spot at the base of the brook. Old Orchard for the grouping of ancient apple trees. Little Yankeetown Pond for the swamp just to the right of Old Orchard, named after a spot near Cody’s childhood home. Goat Field, a hilly, weedy meadow.

Larches frame the woods around the house site, abut Old Yankeetown Pond, and dot Goat Field — there are even more here than there are at the cabin on Larch Lake, ironically. “Maybe we should name the property after them,” I said during a walk a few weeks ago. “It’s a feature of the land — like all the best house names — and it is reminiscent of the cabin on the lake, too.” The idea came to me while collecting sticks. We agreed it seemed to feel right, this name.

Larch trees in Goat Field

The next time we walked the property all of the other trees had dropped their leaves, leaving only their skeletons behind — except the Larches, which glowed like they were painted with neon highlighters. “I like naming it after them,” Cody said. “They are a bit like us, the Larches. All the other trees have already changed and lost their leaves, except them. They are just starting.”

I know that he means that it is like us planning to have a family, later than most everyone we know. Like a lot of people who have experienced loss, we don’t dare trust that a plan like this has assurance of success. “If I get pregnant again,” I once joked to him, “We’ll be buying everything at a Target on the way to the hospital.” You don’t dare prepare, or express too much hope, after a loss. It’s just how it is. “If we have a kid” is how we talk about the extra bedroom in our house plans. If: armor, in word form.

Even aside from this uncertain dream, the Larch analogy rings true of several choices in our lives. It took us eleven years to leave Massachusetts — originally a five year plan — but we did eventually get here. I always wanted to live in deep nature, and after many years spent in a city, and another year in a village, we now live in a truly rural setting. All year I never thought we’d find the right land to buy — I was sure our chance had passed us by — but eventually we did, months after I accepted failure. Luck and nature both operate according to their own rules.

Change is another thing I like about using the Larches as a symbol for our lives. For many months I have grappled with feelings of regret over not having had children younger, when perhaps it might’ve been easier. Was I wrong all those years, mistaken about what I wanted in life? The question haunted me, but eventually I came to understand that I was a different person then, with different interests and ideas about how to live. People change — we shift through the seasons of life, and yet all of those “people” we’ve been are still us. Your cells change over every seven years or so. It’s still you.

I think we’ll probably call the house Larch House. A friend of mine says this is a wonderful, romantic notion: a house with a name. I never expected to build a house — in my twenties, I wasn’t sure if we’d ever own one — and it feels important to put a name on something both so new and so permanent.

If our plans go as expected, the house will be built by summer, and this will be the last fall and winter that we live in the cabin. The Larch trees are now a deep orange, and many have already dropped their needles. My molting birds are growing fresh new feathers. Thanksgiving will be here next week, with Christmas on its heels. In the spring the Larches will be green again as we prepare to move for the last time. I remind myself to be patient, to not count time as it passes, not feel like I’m behind where we should be. I hope we’re right, and our life will be like those trees — its colors shining bright, long after all the others.

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