Gypsy moths, storms provide a firewood surplus

In our house, the most egregious transgression — even worse than neglecting to roll the trash can out on garbage collection day, or polishing off the peanut butter and putting an empty jar back in the refrigerator — is letting the fire burn out in the wood stove.

Now that we’re approaching peak heating season, it’s understood that whoever is in the house must keep stoking the stove. That way, when the other member of the household returns, he or she will enter a toasty home instead of an igloo.

This should be an automatic reflex — every few hours, grab a log or two from the wood box that is conveniently placed only a few feet from the stove, open the door, toss the wood onto glowing embers, adjust the damper and close the door. Done.

But sometimes we get distracted, realizing too late — uh-oh, getting kind of chilly in here. So we race to the stove and observe through a glass door that there are no flames merrily dancing away. Only cold ashes. Aaargh!

This means that instead of simply placing a fresh log onto the fire you have to start from scratch: Pull out the stove’s ash-collecting tray, carry it carefully outside to a galvanized bucket positioned safely on a granite slab, dump the contents, replace the tray, then stuff the stove with crumbled newspapers and kindling, light a match, puff away with a bellows, meticulously load logs of various sizes in a crisscross pattern, and fiddle with the damper until the fire finally gets going.

It would be a lot simpler, of course, just to allow the furnace to come on, which reminds me of a week in late January I once spent as caretaker of the Gray Knob shelter, perched at 4,370 feet in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and accessible only via a long, steep, icy trail. I was instructed that, because of a scarcity of firewood, I should light the stove, the sole source of heat, only if hikers passing through on their way to Mount Adams and other nearby, snow-covered peaks decided to spend the night.

Alone for the first three days, I stamped around in a circle for hours to stay warm before crawling into in my sleeping bag, bringing my water bottle with me to keep it from freezing overnight because the interior thermometer registered in the 20s. Outside, the wind never stopped howling and the temperature plunged into the single digits.

One item fastened to an interior wall made me laugh: a dummy thermostat, placed there as a gag. Actually, it was a real thermostat, but if you looked closely, you could see it wasn’t connected to anything. I wondered how many first-time visitors to Gray Knob futilely twisted the dial.

Anyway, our home in Connecticut is not quite as primitive — we do have a real thermostat capable of turning on an actual furnace. And also unlike Gray Knob, we have tons of “free” firewood — why burn oil or run up the electric bill?

I put “free” in quotation marks, because, as anyone who heats with wood realizes, this takes for granted no monetary compensation for all your labor: felling trees, splitting and stacking logs, and lugging them to and from the woodshed. If I were to pay myself for such toils, I would be making about three cents an hour, at best.

Oh, I almost forgot one other chore — replacing the trees I harvest. Last week, I spent a couple days transplanting almost 200 seedlings from a makeshift nursery near my garden into the surrounding forest.

Now for some bad news that is almost good news, in a making-lemonade-out-of-lemons kind of way. Because so many trees are dead or dying due to gypsy moths, storms, drought or simply old age, there is an abundance of wood for burning.

I used to be fond of saying there’s no such thing as too much firewood. No more.

We started this heating season with a full woodshed, containing about six cords of split hardwood (one cord measures 128 cubic feet; we typically burn about five cords a year.) An adjoining woodshed is about half filled. A few yards away, I’ve stacked a huge pile of logs, which, once cut and split, should finish filling this second shed.

Scattered farther afield are a dozen or so additional stashes, which I estimate contain at least another 10 cords. And all around, oaks and other hardwoods are dying.

Tom Worthley, associate professor with the University of Connecticut’s Extension System, recently told the Hartford Courant that what appears to be happening in woodlands across much of the state is a “gradually unfolding ecological disaster.”

He added that most tree-damaged areas of the state appear to lie in “an arc across eastern and southeastern Connecticut” that sustained two successive years of gypsy moth outbreaks along with abnormally dry conditions.

The newspaper also quoted experts who reported that millions of Connecticut’s trees are now reaching the end of their normal life spans, making them less able to withstand major storms, insects and diseases.

Up and down our street, and elsewhere throughout the region, the sound of chainsaws fills the air.

The other day, I watched a crew take down an enormous, centuries-old oak that had hovered menacingly over a neighbor’s house. The magnificent tree died over the summer after defoliation by gypsy moths.

The lumberjacks salvaged the main trunk, which measured nearly three feet in diameter, but to save time, they fed long limbs containing weeks if not months of usable firewood into the chipper.

Not long ago, I would have rushed forward, waved my arms, and offered to take these thick limbs before they were ground up, but instead I stared silently and shook my head. If I claimed the limbs, I’d have to cut them into stove-length sections and lug them nearly a hundred yards uphill. With so much wood closer at hand, it wasn’t worth my time and energy.

By the way, the ground-up limbs didn’t go totally to waste. I persuaded the crew to dump a truckload of chips onto a pile on our property that I’m using for mulch around my seedlings. Circle of life, I guess.

Stay warm, everybody. Even with global warming, it could be a long winter.

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