Like a chipmunk gathering acorns in September I find myself preparing for winter throughout the year, but in a slightly different way. For my entire life I have used wood as fuel for staying warm during the colder months. As a veteran of wood burning, I am keenly aware of the time and effort it takes to stockpile the necessary supplies of wood to sustain my family through the winter months.
My first involvement with this life long endeavor was stacking wood as a very young man. As a novice in wood stacking I managed to pile wood in such a fashion as to have the pile tumble over more than once. Since stacking wood is hard enough to begin with, I soon learned to pile the wood in a manner that would remain secure until it was time to be utilized. At about age nine I began sawing wood with a buck saw and managed to “get the wood in” in this manner until I learned to use a chain saw in my late teens. When I first started using a chain saw I was impressed with how much work it could do in a very short time, but I was unimpressed with how noisy it was. No longer was cutting wood a solitude endeavor that blended well with my surroundings.
Despite the noise of modern machinery I still enjoy working in the woods harvesting our family fuel supply. I am fortunate to be in good health and capable of managing the hard labor. Cutting wood helps to keep me in good shape, both physically and mentally.
When harvesting cordwood in our forest I try to be sensitive to the impacts I am about to make to the woods. Generally, I try to thin trees that are unhealthy. While cutting standing dead wood trees I try to leave at least twelve per acre for use by wildlife. I also recognize that while thinning trees it is wise to thin trees of different varieties to make sure to maintain a diverse balance of tree species, again for wildlife use.
My favorite part of cutting wood is splitting the larger pieces. I still split all my wood by hand with an eight pound maul. Although I own a gas powered hydraulic wood splitter I keep it loaned out so I am not tempted to use it. While splitting one piece of wood at a time I get to enjoy the quiet of the natural surroundings. I interrupt the solitude only with a loud thump from the dropping maul. If I remember correctly, it was Ben Franklin who said burning wood warms you thrice, once cutting and splitting the wood, once hauling the wood, and once when the log is on the fire.
When splitting wood I like to think about each piece. For instance, I am happy to see a nice straight piece of white ash in the pile. I know it will split cleanly and easily. I may be challenged by a piece of iron wood, knowing it will take considerable effort, and likely several hard throws of the maul to break it in two. With a piece of yellow birch I never know what to expect. Sometimes it splits easily, and sometimes I have to “power up’ to manage the challenge.
The variety of hardwoods in our forest makes for an interesting wood pile. Black cherry, black birch, yellow birch, white birch, white ash, red oak, red maple, sugar maple, ironwood, beech, and hickory can all be found stacked in my cord wood pile this year. Each has individual qualities that I can enjoy and admire. Dry red maple is great for throwing on the coals to get the fire going in the morning, as is black cherry whereas ironwood, sugar maple, hickory, and beech are the best choices to keep the stove burning through the night. The difference in heat value between different hardwoods is staggering. Dry shagbark hickory will provide about 31 million BTU’s of heat per cord, while dry black cherry manages only 23 million BTU’s per cord. Knowing the heat value of wood can be helpful in choosing the best wood for the fire desired. If available, I like to burn cherry and white birch in the autumn and spring, and beech, hickory, sugar maple, and my absolute favorite, ironwood, in the dead of winter.
As I work on the wood pile with my maul I also like to think about the real value of each tree to the ecological balance in the forest. When I pick up a piece of red oak to split I am reminded that this tree may may provide the majority of the food for many mammals in the fall and winter months by the production of peak acorn crops every other year or so. Similarly, as I wrestle with a piece of ironwood I might consider how this tree often dies on the stump and provides homes to dozens of insect species which in turn provides food for countless birds the excavate the wood to harvest the bugs and later the holes left by the excavator birds may be used by flying squirrels and small birds like chickadees for nesting.
And sometimes while splitting wood I think about nothing at all. Splitting wood can be remarkably meditative. The rhythm of splitting wood can be absolving; absolution from stress, absolution from worries, and absolution from the busy world that I find so troubling.
On most weekends, at some point in time, you can find me working on our fuel supply in one way or another. I try to chip away at this task by doing it a little at a time throughout the year. The only time I avoid processing wood is in the dead heat of summer when there is no need to heat things up more than they already are.
If I may, I would like to edit Ben Franklin’s thought on cutting wood. As I reflect on my experience of cutting wood it warms me not three, but four times; once when cutting and splitting the wood, once when hauling the wood, once when the log is on the fire, and once as it warms my soul.
Originally written in September of 2005