You Can Never Have Too Much Firewood

A terrible noise rousted me from a deep sleep the other night: the rumble of the furnace igniting for the first time this season.

I flung the covers off, staggered downstairs, raced to the thermostat and twisted the dial.

Luckily, my wife was on a trip to New Mexico for a few days or else I probably would have been told to let the damn heat come on because the house felt like an igloo, but since I was alone I could freeze if I wanted.

I had no intention of freezing, but I just can't bring myself to light the wood stove before Oct. 1 even if the temperature dips into the 40s. And the thought of burning precious heating oil also repelled me, so I grabbed a heavy quilt and burrowed back under the covers.

After all, on various occasions I've slept outside in a bivvy sack during a blizzard, spent a week as a winter hut caretaker in the White Mountains, mostly alone, when the indoor temperature rarely went above freezing, and had been trapped in a tent for days during a furious snowstorm at 19,000 feet in the Andes.

But the sound of the furnace reminded me that any day now I'll be firing up the stove and eating into my stores of firewood.

I'm probably more of a procrastinator than any 10 people except when it comes to wood, when I become a virtual Paul Bunyan.

I have two woodsheds, each holding about six cords. In a typical winter I will burn about five cords, and I rotate them so that I'm always burning wood that has been seasoned at least a year. If I were even more obsessive I'd build a third shed.

The shed that I plan to use this year has been filled since last spring, and during sporadic cutting and splitting this past summer I managed to fill about two-thirds of the shed I'll be drawing from next year. Summer is a miserable time to cut and split, what with the bugs and the heat, so I generally start in earnest in the fall and continue through the winter.

In addition, nothing splits better than a frozen log on frozen ground. And, to repeat Thoreau's famous dictum, when you heat with wood you heat twice: First when you cut it and then when you burn it. Once I get going I usually strip off all but one thin layer, even when the temperature dips into the teens.

I made one major improvement the other day that had been bugging me for years. The first step from one woodshed had dropped about 2 feet to an enormous boulder, and the next step was a flat but teetery rock that always threatened to send me sprawling when I lugged heavy log carriers.

Working alone with an assortment of pry bars, fulcrums, levers, cribbing and a mattock I managed to extricate the boulder, which measured about half the size of a refrigerator, and move if about 6 feet downhill. Next I had to reposition all the other stone steps from the house -- some lead to the other woodshed, some to the garden, some to the outdoor pizza oven, some to the fire pit where I boil sap to make maple syrup -- in order to link up with the newly configured stairway.

Finally, I had to build a set of wide-tread wooden stairs from the relocated boulder to the shed. My friend Bob, a skilled carpenter, offered valuable advice and moral support.

I finished the whole project in about 10 hours, and I'm pleased to report I can now haul wood from the shed to the house without fear of toppling into the small frog pond or bashing my knee on a rock.

I may one day devise a pulley system but that carries the risk of a runaway load that smashes through the sliding glass door on the side deck, so for the time being I'll stick to the stairs.

My wood operation already has gotten much easier since I started using a chainsaw a few years ago. Before then, when our son was still living at home, he and I did all our cutting with a two-man crosscut saw and bow saws. I have to admit I miss him but not the hours we spent bent over an 18-inch-thick hickory log.

Hickory is great for burning but is about as easy to cut as orthoclase.

I have more than enough trees already felled that have to be cut up, split and hauled to the sheds. I cut a number of them last year, mostly silver birch, a few dogwoods and one large maple, when I expanded the garden.

I also planted a couple hundred seedlings in the spring, and transplanted a couple hundred others from my makeshift nursery to various areas that I’d thinned. It's the arboreal version of the circle of life, reinforced by my use of raked leaves for mulch around the seedlings.

I've spent a wonderful, active summer, but now the days of swimming and carefree kayaking are drawing to a close.

I'm eager to get back to the saw and splitting maul.

You can never have too much firewood.


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