The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Primal Urge to Burn Wood

It started with an innocent comment, but my man-senses jumped to alert.

"Barb says she used to burn firewood in a wood stove, but it was so dirty that she put in a gas stove." My wife seemed unaware of the challenge she had so nonchalantly thrown at me.

"Well, I guess burning wood is a little dirty, but the bark and dust are easily enough swept up every day. After all, who'd notice a little dirt in this house?"

Now she was rising to the duel, lasers shooting from her beautiful blue eyes. The battle was joined.

It never should have come to this, but then women don't seem to understand the primal urge men have to chop, split, stack, and then burn wood. In these days of everything at our fingertips, real men yearn for good solid work out of doors in cold weather. A week of sitting couped up in an office with a portal on the outside world and three-hundred and twelve urgent email requests a day is released and replaced with a few hours of swinging an axe, a maul, running a chain saw or even a wood-splitter.

Maybe it's because we regain a little control of our world. There are very few things required of us these days that men of even thirty years ago had to deal with all the time. Cars can no longer be tuned in the driveway; oil changes are done for us by oil droids as we pull through and watch them have all the fun. Our kids can't just throw a football or play silly games with dad in the yard...they have to participate in structured, supervised programs where we watch as they get hollered at by individuals who teach very little about competitive sportsmanship and a whole bunch about politically correct "fairness". We don't even have the satisfaction of cashing a paycheck anymore. It's all done online, and the account is drained without our hardly participating at all. We just don't get to appreciate the fruits of our labor anymore.

Except when we're making firewood. Then we're in production mode. We can plan what month we're going to take down a tree, or two, or three, and we can spend months beforehand walking around our yard or woodlot, or the local public forest, weighing all the factors in our mind on what the perfect cut for next year will be. How to get the right mix of oak and hickory with the unavoidable maple and aspen so that our fires can always generate enough coals to produce the heat we need and the warm embers required to start the fire again each morning.

Every man who burns wood loves to mentally plan his wood usage against the months of the year. This year got cold early, and I had burned through the first cord by the second of December. So far, so good...five cords to go. But when the second cord was gone by December 20th, I had to start formulating backup plans. As I hauled the third cord up to the house, I took extra care to sort out the shorts and culls for the upstairs stove, and I supplemented these with some old wood laying out around the lot. I even found about a face cord of old wood that was left by the previous owner in a remote corner of the lot and had been covered over by leaves for over a decade. Pretty dirty, but once it was cleaned up it was still pretty solid, all oak and black locust. It helped me delay the start of my third cord by about five days, and those five days will be pretty big in late March.

I have to admit, I wasn't always a wood burner. Grew up with wall thermostats and never knew where the heat came from, except out of the ceiling. But then in my early twenties, I met a real man. My neighbor Harry Zander was one of those guys of "The Greatest Generation" who are called that these days in tribute to their contributions and sacrifices during the Big One, W-W-Two. But their real greatness was founded in their ability to do anything you can think of, and especially run their home from their own resources. Harry was in his late fifties when I knew him, but he would cut, split, and stack ten cords of wood a year without even mentioning it. And in his spare time would grow all his own potatoes, tomatoes, corn, peas, and cabbage; shoot and slaughter a couple of deer; keep his fruit and pecan trees trimmed; and make his own sausage in the smokehouse out back, that he designed and built on his own. And all of this after putting in a forty-five hour week on the highway crew.

I learned a lot about wood from Harry. How to tell dry wood from green from the sound of it. How to split it just right to make the work go as easily as possible, and how to stack the wood for optimal drying in as small an area as possible. But mainly I just learned from Harry how much satisfaction there is in doing things yourself, instead of just paying up and having things done for you.

So when a bought a big old house a few years ago, and started buying twelve hundred to fifteen hundred gallons of fuel oil every winter, I started to recall the merits of burning wood instead of dollars. I invested in a large wood stove insert for the downstairs fireplace and re-conditioned the old pot-belly stove the previous owner had left out on the back glassed-in sunroom. And immediately started scouting out for firewood.

In the first two years of getting back on firewood, I averaged about five cords a year, with just a little supplemental heat (about 100 gallons each year) of oil heat. This winter I put away six cords and I'm trying to keep the boiler shut down all winter. May not make it, but I'm having fun trying to make it...and a lot of satisfaction in not dealing with that oil company.

I was thinking about how much satisfaction I was getting out of my wood burning diversion, right when my wife emitted her sub-conscious wish for a nice, clean, gas stove. And that event this weekend made me decide to start this blog, and devote it to everyone who appreciates a good piece of wood, whatever it is used for. I hope I can honor your time with my modest contributions here over the coming years.


Anonymous said...

This is great!!! made me laugh, made me cry, me me see truth...... Look forward to more posts!

Chuck said...

Thanks, Anon. One comment like yours, and I'm good for another 25 posts, at least... :-)

John Colwell said...

Being disturbed by seeing all the firewood in our suburb going to waste led to a fireplace stove insert that heats the whole house on all but the coldest days. Yes, the instinct is primal. I grew uyp burning wood and detested every other heating system I suffered through. And, yes burning wood is dirty. Cleaning is just another part of the warming that wood burning creates.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a country home with nothing but wood heat. When you came in from the cold you could back up to the stove and actually get some heat instead of the moderately warm air provided by heat pumps. I'm not sure I could cut and split a load of wood anymore but I sure enjoy your posts. This one brings back a lot of memories and thanks for the family history. I have enjoyed all you have posted.

Best regards,

Joe Hopkins

Chuck Ray said...

Thanks, Joe. Glad you enjoyed it.