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    Tuesday, November 29, 2022

    There’s no such thing as too much firewood

    Six cords of firewood have been seasoning in this woodshed for more than a year. Another six cords, stored in an adjoining woodshed, will be dry enough to burn next year. A cord measures 128 cubic feet.

    You’d think that with 14 cords of firewood already split and stacked — enough to heat our house for three winters —I’d finally give my saw, my axe and myself a rest.

    But no, there I was the other day, like King Midas hoarding bags of gold, splitting another pile of logs.

    Those of us who rely heavily on forest fuel know all too well that you can never have enough firewood.

    When I first fired up a woodstove decades ago, I ran out in the middle of the winter, and had to traipse hundreds of yards behind our house in search of a dead tree. Luckily, I found a red oak that had been struck by lightning.

    After hours of cutting and splitting, I then made a dozen trips lugging a loaded toboggan through the snow.

    That experience prompted me to build a woodshed, eventually store and season plenty of firewood, and install a bigger, more efficient stove.

    We now have two woodstoves and two woodsheds, each capable of holding six cords.

    Two more cords are stacked in the driveway — a cord measures 128 cubic feet. We typically burn about four to five cords a year, so theoretically, I shouldn’t have to do any more cutting or splitting until after the next presidential election.

    But you can’t rest on your laurels — their dead branches, by the way, make excellent kindling. Last summer’s drought, insect predation and the fact that many trees in our region are reaching the end of their lifespans, have created an abundance of fuel for those willing to devote the time and energy.

    Heating with wood may save on oil bills, but it really is a labor of love, paid off when you hustle indoors on a frosty day and plop down next to a toasty stove.

    Henry David Thoreau is mistakenly credited for first observing that those who heat with wood heat twice — first when they cut it and second when they burn it. He actually repeated an old proverb.

    But a quote from Thoreau’s “Walden” remains one of my favorites: “Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I love to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work.”

    A couple disclosures: Last year, my wife, Lisa and I had a split-unit heat pump system installed in our house that can keep us cool on blazing hot summer days and warm on icy winter ones. We still keep the woodstove burning all day and only click on the device late at night so nobody has to get up at 2 a.m. to stoke it when the fire dies down.

    Also, my neighbor, Bob, and I bought a 40-ton, gas-fired hydraulic splitter capable of cleaving gnarly, knot-ridden logs measuring more than two feet in diameter. However, there is no way to tow this monstrous machine up a long, stone staircase leading to my house, so nearly all trees I cut in the woods uphill have to be split the old-fashioned way, with a maul, sledge hammer and wedges.

    After another neighbor, Eric, demonstrated the efficiency of his lightweight, Finnish-designed splitting axe, I ran out and bought one. It has proven to be a grand slam. Weighing 3.6 pounds, less than half the eight-pound maul I had been swinging, and less than a quarter of the 20-pound sledge hammer I occasionally drag out for particularly stubborn logs, this tool features a hollow, fiberglass handle and razor-sharp, stainless-steel blade that much of the time slices through wood like a knife through butter.

    This especially applies to smooth-grained red oak, but I sometimes have to bring out the heavy hitter for large ash logs that contain tough, stringy heartwood.

    Speaking of hitting, the New York Times reported last month that ash once was the most popular wood for baseball bats, noting, “Most of baseball history has been written with ash bats, from Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941 to Roger Maris’s 61 home runs in 1961 to Mark McGwire’s 70 homers in 1998.”

    The spread of the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle first discovered in this country 20 years ago, has been killing off huge swaths of these trees from coast to coast, and now nearly all major leaguers swing bats made of maple, the newspaper added.

    The decline of this once-prolific species has been a gain for wood scavengers, who can find ash carcasses everywhere — I had to hire a professional logging crew to cut down two that were too close to the power lines for me to fell safely.

    By the way, I now use a gas-powered chain saw. Years ago, my son Tom and I cut all our firewood with an old-fashioned, two-man saw, but I eventually realized this left little time for other things in life, such as eating and sleeping.

    Using a chain saw may cut down on labor, but other aspects of heating with wood consume plenty of time: gathering kindling, shoveling ashes, constantly stoking the fire, lugging firewood from the shed to the house …

    Also, earlier this month I transplanted a new batch of tree seedlings. Over the years I’ve carefully nurtured and put back in the ground about 5,000 new trees — the least I can do for a renewable resource that has given so much pleasure and served so well.

    If you factor in all those tasks, I’d be paying myself about three cents an hour for all the “savings” of not buying heating oil or propane.

    Tom and I break out the vintage hand saw every so often, for old time’s sake, and I welcome its near-silent zip-zip-zip, compared to the deafening whine of a chain saw. At least the rhythmic thwack, thwack, thwack of a splitting axe is less intrusive, almost blending in with the forest sounds.

    When I’m not cutting, splitting or lugging, I spend a fair amount of time roaming the woods, savoring the serenity, but also keeping a watchful eye for dead or diseased trees. By avoiding cutting down large, healthy trees, I keep in mind George Pope Morris’s poetic imprecation:

    “Woodman, spare that tree!

    ⁠ Touch not a single bough!

    In youth it sheltered me,

    ⁠ And I'll protect it now.”

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