Recently, while driving through northern New Mexico, I spotted a large troca carrying an enormous load of firewood to some unknown destination. I exclaimed, “Wow, there must still be a few hombrotes left in these parts! The leñeros responsible for this load must still be able to muster the fuerzas to cut, load and haul fallen dead trees from high up in the mountains to some home in the valley below. Nowadays, very few hombres remain who are capable of carrying out such demanding jale. ¡Qué bárbaros!”
I turned around, followed the troca into a nearby parquiadero, engaged the tired leñeros and negotiated a price for the precious bounty, which I have grown either too old or too soft to procure myself. We settled on $500 and I was only too happy to give it to them, as much for the quantity of fuel the load represented as well as to honor them for the feat that they had accomplished in an age where pressing keys on a keyboard is considered to be the height of respectable work.
When I paid them, I found out that this crew of four men from Chimayó and Nambé Pueblo were descendants of Doña Sostena Sherwood, an old-time friend of my parents who used to visit our family a mere 50 years ago, when I was a child. She would entertain us with lavish historias of uncommon common events, as well as with her all-too-colorful personalidad. A history of the newly discovered family friendship instantly sealed the trato between us and it was not long before an impressive pila de leña appeared in front of my house.
Going for firewood deep into the forested mountains of northern New Mexico has for many generations of Indo-Hispano youth been almost a rite of passage that catapults them straight into responsible manhood. Yendo por leña is hardly a task for the faint of heart since it usually involves madrugando, maneuvering through rugged terrain and a full day’s worth of strenuous cutting, carrying and stacking.
Furthermore, it requires that a person be strong and deft in the handling of a power saw as well as versed in teamwork. Woodcutting and hauling is best carried out with others rather than by oneself. A leñero worth his weight in sal must strive to know the forest, trees and leña intimately if he is to make his investment of a long trip into the sierras pay off. Aside from wood, many leñeros also collect trementina, an old-time sealer for certain objects, and ocote, for starting fires.
He must also possess a thorough knowledge of the terrain, the various stands of trees—piñón, cedro, sabino and pinabete, as well as an understanding of the mechanics of his serruche, other tools, and the carrying capacity of his truck. If he is a good and responsible leñero, he will exercise good judgment and respect for what trees should and should not be harvested. Such an attitude, though not shared by everyone, safeguards the health of the forest and puts him well within the legal limits imposed by the U.S Forest Service, which granted him his compulsory wood-gathering permiso. After several hours of exhausting but satisfying toil and a good lonchcito, of course, the crew will have succeeded in filling the troca to capacity and securing the load with ropes or straps bien tite, as they say. As might be expected, the now heavy vehicle drives very differently than before, and the driver must exercise due caution in maneuvering on his descent.
Once the load has been piled high in the yarda of the happy buyer, it becomes the object of other kinds of labor before being used as fuel. If the leña has been brought down in large trozos, the wood must now be split into pieces that can easily be carried and placed into a fogón or outdoor adobe horno for cooking and baking. If the wood’s owner does not employ a motorized wood splitter, then he or she will have to have on hand a well-sharpened hacha and possibly a metal cuña with which to cut the wood into manageable pieces.
The cuña is used to split the upright trozo with the blows of a marro when it is placed in a crevice on the surface of the wood. It helps if one has a good aim with the hacha and a sense of where the wood is most vulnerable to being split. It is a judicious move on the part of the woodcutter to put on safety goggles to protect the eyes from a dangerous missile that might be inadvertently launched with a powerful blow of the hacha.
As mundane as the act of partiendo leña might seem, I have found it to be one of the most satisfying tasks I have ever done, especially when the blade of the hacha falls just so and the once resistant trozo splits cleanly in dos. Additional satisfaction is felt when the montoncito that began as just a couple of chopped logs grows into a veritable mountain of wood commensurate with one’s stick-to-it-ness and love of real jale. The visually arresting, ever-growing montón de leña is proof enough that “life is good” and that the wealth that people possess can actually be the result of their own efforts.
Quite often that wealth manifests itself in neatly stacked rows of firewood or other artistic arrangements. In the case of one of my late uncles, Tío Willie López of Las Truchas, his entire garage had, by virtue of his relentless efforts, morphed into a winter wonderland of endless stacks that rose clear up to the ceiling and filled every available space.
An important byproduct of partiendo leña is the supply of kindling produced when palitos fly off the trozos and begin to litter the wood-splitting floor. Years ago, when everyone still burned wood, when familias were large and children were not beholden to so much electronic gadgetry, it was always the responsibility of the youngest children to go out and pick palitos every evening. The palitos were used as kindling for lighting the morning fires. The older children followed suit by carrying in wood for the evening. Lighting of the fires was reserved only for la gente grande who knew what they were doing, for la lumbre is indeed an awesome power that humanity has learned to tame, but only at a very high price.
Once una buena lumbre has been achieved inside the fogón, one can gradually feel the chill being dispelled from the surroundings and un calorcito bien suave beginning to seep into the living spaces and deep into the marrow of one’s bones with reassuring comfort. It was around such fires that not long ago, the majority of our families and friends used to gather around and spend the evening conversing and telling stories. These days, in instances when the walls of my bedroom glow with the rich dancing amber light of the flickering flames inside of the fogón, I am deeply grateful for my cherished pila de leña and supply of palitos, to say nothing of my own ability to go for leña if I had to.
I am equally thankful for the long line of antepasados and for contemporaries such as the Sherwood men for the body of knowledge, the technologies and the immense piles of wood they have gathered. All of this has gone into making la cultura de la leña one that provides the much coveted warmth and security of una buena y muy cozy lumbrita during the challenging wintertime cuando hace un frío perro.
Alejandro López, whose family originated in Las Truchas, one of New Mexico’s highest and coldest villages, grew up steeped in la cultura de la leña. He is the author of Hispanic Folk Arts and the Environment of the Río Grande, a folk arts curriculum for children and youth K-12, produced under the auspices of the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM.
Glossary of terms some common to New Mexico only
Leña — Firewood
Leñero — Woodcutter
Hombrotes — Hard workers
¡Qué bárbaros¡ — What amazing fellows!
Jale — Work
Troca — Truck
Parquiadero — Parking lot
Historias — Stories
Personalidad — Personality
Trato — Deal
Pila de leña — Pile of wood
Madrugar — To get up early
Sal — Salt
Trementina — Pitch
Ocote — Pitchwood
Cedro — Cedar
Sabino — Juniper
Pinabete — Ponderosa pine
Serruche — Saw
Lonchecito — Lunch
Tite — Tight
Yarda — Yard
Trozos — Chunks
Fogón — Stove
Hacha — Ax
Cuña — Wedge
Marro — Sledgehammer
Partiendo leña — Spliting wood
Montón(cito) — Pile
Tío — Uncle
Palitos — Kindling
Gente grande — Adults
La lumbre — Fire
Un calorcito bien suave — A delicious warmth
Antepasados — Ancestors
Cuando hace un frío perro — When it gets fiercely cold