With spring in full swing, in April, our thoughts in this rural part of northern France turn to wood. I don’t mean literally of course. Despite the fact that the warm months of summer are yet to come, we start to think of keeping warm in winter. Pretty much everyone in the village has a wood fire, and some have wood ovens. My nonagenarian neighbour Claudette has had her boat-shaped enamel wood oven, the colour of the Mediterranean sea on a sunny August day, since she got married in 1960. It’s fed by small sticks of wood. Her son-in-law my neighbour Jean-Claude, abhors the job of log chopping on this scale. However, he can spot an opportunity from a mile away.
The first rule of Wood Club is you don’t talk about Wood Club
‘Let’s talk wood’ he said to my husband Mark one day a few years ago. ‘You can never have too much, and as it happens, there’s an opening in the Wood Club of which I am President. And me and the rest, well, we’d love you to join. It means free firewood in return for a little bit of help to manage the trees in Claudette’s fields’. Claudette is the biggest landowner in the area and rents land out to several farmers.
The ‘rest’ turned out to be Claude Senior AKA Claude “Claude at the top of the big hill”. Every day he visits his sone “Claude at the top of the small hill” (I hope you’re still with me). Petit-Frère of course is part of the team, he’s Jean-Claude’s best mate. And Monsieur Durand and Monsieur Rohart, both former farmers. Jean-Claude made getting into the club sound as if it was an exclusive and coveted achievement. A little while later, at a formal meeting of the other members of the Wood Club, Mark was accepted into the group. He was told that he shouldn’t share details of what they do with anyone else, or they’d all want in.
They get together once a year in the winter months to chop down damaged or too big trees. The wood is then stored it in stackable sized pieces in Jean-Claude’s enormous barn where it’s left to season. Jean-Claude, as the leader of the gang, does little but sit on his tractor and direct operations.
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
In late spring the Wood Club get together to chop the seasoned wood into usable logs. Jean-Claude and Claude-who-lives-at-the-top-of-the-hill bring their tractors to which are attached home-made wood choppers. The booty is shared out between the Wood Club members.
Jean-Claude is a wily operator and provides his team with a feast each day, buttering them up at lunch time with buttery fondant potatoes and rich stews. Beef cooked in beer and creamy chicken poule au pot. He doles out great chunks of crispy baguette to mop up the sauces. And to finish there is one of Claudette’s famous fruit or chocolate tarts or crème brulee.
At the end of each day there is beer and wine or a glass of pastis, Jean-Claude’s favourite, his ‘petit jaune’, his little yellow sunshine in a glass. When he tacks a request for just one more day of help to cut small bits of wood for his belle-maman’s oven there is much raising of eyebrows. Everyone pretends to be exhausted or too busy. In truth they are all used to his ways by now. And all the Wood Club members expect this last request of the week but of course no one lets on! Life here in rural France is about friendship, neighbourliness and community, and eventually everyone gives in and the wood is cut to Claudette’s satisfaction!
Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream – My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life and Toujours la France: Living the Dream in Rural France – available as ebooks, print & audio, on Book Depository, Booktopia, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online…