A life measured in cordwood: A review of Into the Heat: My Love Affair with Trees, Fire, Saws and Men

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Into the Heat: My Love Affair with Trees, Fire, Saws and Men
Cindy Bellinger
159 pages, softcover: $14.95.
High-Lonesome Books, 2011.

What does it mean for one woman to take an active, eventful life and root it ever more deeply in one spot, settling down in the mountain foothills where a nearby pine forest becomes a close companion, and the days and seasons move to the rhythm of gathering, cutting, splitting, stacking and burning firewood? For one thing, it means that trees -- in all their incarnations, from live green towers to downed logs to woodstove warmth -- readily provide lucid metaphors for lessons in love and life.

For Cindy Bellinger, a journalist and author whose four previous books include Someone Stole my Outhouse and Other Tales of Home Improvement, a lifetime's obsession with trees and firewood leads her to a small parcel of land backed up to thousands of acres of wilderness in northern New Mexico. Bellinger's memoir, Into the Heat: My Love Affair with Trees, Fire, Saws and Men, introduces us to a determined, 60-something, chainsaw-wielding woman who retraces the paths of ill-fated past loves with honesty and good humor. Meanwhile, she gradually builds an enduring relationship with the land. "After years of living in the forest, a peculiar map traces through my head, one outlined with trails leading to natural springs, to the best views of the far peaks. These trails place order on the land and richly embed the topography; how to get home is thick with direction," she writes.

Toward the end of Into the Heat, Bellinger learns that in a sense, "downed trees are more alive than living ones." That means that a considerable percentage of living tissue -- termites, fungi, beetles and mites -- thrives in a downed and rotting tree, transforming it into a "nurse log" that will provide nutrients for new forest life. This is a disconcerting notion to Bellinger, because she has just put an extraordinary amount of planning and effort into cutting and hauling a fallen hundred-foot-tall ponderosa pine out of the forest near her home. Now she wonders if she shouldn't have let it lie. Fortunately for the reader, Bellinger doesn't hesitate to harvest the downed logs of her own experiences. And even when a human love affair cools down, she returns to and reminds us of the primal pleasure behind her love affair with firewood: the lit match and spreading warmth of a cozy fire on a winter night.

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