A koan: Have I stacked and burned thirty woodpiles over the years, or has there only been one woodpile ebbing and flowing?
You would think the day before my husband has surgery to remove an adrenal tumor I’d have more on my mind than the woodpile. Looking out the window at the yellowing crabapples, the shapes of the mountains flattened against the gray sky, the rusty dried leaves, I see winter coming and I’m glad the woodpile is under control. Now if Walter needs extra time to convalesce, there will be no worry.
You can tell a lot about a household by the shape and size of its woodpile. Most of ours is in the cellar now, about three dry cord. We got the last of it moved in about a week ago with the help of our handyman. But I’m ahead of myself. This woodpile (or, this year’s iteration of the Eternal Woodpile) started as three dry cord piled next to the driveway. I also single-handedly piled a green cord next to the driveway about a month ago; it is still there, drying for a future year, not ready to join the pile in the cellar. There’s that old saying about wood warming you twice: bringing it it is the first time, then there’s the cozy fire. Anyone who seriously heats with wood, though, will be quick to tell you it warms you many more times than twice. First you move it from a dumped heap into a stack for drying, then you move the dry wood either into another stack or maybe several (ours in the cellar, for example) then to the stove, then you enjoy the heat it produces. If you’re tidy and organized, you will have a dynamic mix of green, dry, stacked, stored, and stoveside wood ready to go by the middle of November. If you’re lazy and disorganized, you’ll have a heap of green cordwood sitting right where the wood guy dumped it in August; soon it will freeze and you’ll be cussing all winter as you chip each soggy log free.
I smile to remember how terrified I used to be of lighting a match. The idea literally sent me into a cold sweat. Now, thirty years into living with wood heat, I don’t remember how I made the transition from complete fear of fire to an ease with it. I have worked the cycle with wood heat, from helping to fell the eighteen-inch maples to cutting log lengths, splitting them, stacking, moving, and burning the results. Lately, though, we order cut and split cordwood from Palmer Goodrich, anywhere from two to seven or eight cord every summer depending on the status of the woodpile. We stack it, move the stacks two or three times as it dries, and burn it in one of several stoves: the Regal cookstove in the kitchen, the Vermont Castings “Resolute” in the front room, or the potbelly railroad station stove in Walter’s train layout room. We go through about four cord every heating season, trying to use as little of the oil heat backup as we can.
Wood is a pleasant material to handle. It smells good, it has an interesting texture, the heft of each 16-inch split log is just challenging enough. As with so many other chores, I always feel slight dread at the prospect of stacking wood but once I start, it’s not so bad. HOWEVER: I’m ready to offer a meaningful reward to anyone who can design a ONE-STACK SYSTEM for our woodpile. It should be close to the house, but not in the way of the snowplow. It should always keep the driest wood most accessible. It should include a means of keeping the cellar full of dry wood. Meaningful reward, people. Wood is a pleasant material, but there are only so many hours in the day.
I live in the middle of a great forest. Over the years I’ve watched woodlots cleared, covered with scrub, and then crowded with young hardwoods again. I’ve stacked and burned my share of maple, oak, beech, and birch and learned the special characteristics of each: color, grain, weight, and, best of all, smell. Sometimes I treat myself by throwing a big birch log on the fire, then going outside to smell the smoke as it curls out of the chimney. The smell of birch smoke means warmth, comfort, security. Just what a person needs when he’s coming home less one adrenal gland.