Creativity and Productivity, Researching Historical Fiction

The Pleasures of Stacking Firewood

Since I moved (see previous post), my life is busy in different ways. Here are some of my new distractions: caring for the three geese and one duck we inherited from the previous owners, maintaining an amazing series of gardens, and hauling and stacking firewood for our furnace.

Wood is cheaper to burn than any other fuel in these parts, and there is something about the smell of charred wood that is almost primal. It lingers in the garage, where the furnace is, and on humid days, I often catch a whiff of it. It is a smell of warmth and comfort, and it brings back fond memories of camping trips.

Three cords of "green" wood stacked and seasoning for burning -- next winter.
These three cords of “green” wood will be ready for burning next winter.

In the past few months, I have stacked about five cords of wood. A cord, for those of you who don’t know, measures 4 feet high by 4 feet wide by 8 feet long and has a volume of 128 cubic feet. A cord of green (unseasoned) wood can weigh more than 4,000 pounds.

Seasoned wood burns more efficiently and is less likely to cause creosote buildup in a furnace, which is a fire hazard. That’s because freshly cut wood can be up to 50 percent water. Seasoning wood (which basically means storing it outside protected from the elements) can take six months to a year. So most of the wood I’m stacking now is for next winter.

This process has given me a better sense of the amount of planning and physical effort that went into meeting one’s basic needs 150 years ago. Homesteading (it’s interesting to see that term coming back into use!) is still a challenge, but back then, the work was sprawling and unrelenting (in the “Little House on the Prairie” books, Pa even heats and forms his own lead bullets for hunting).

Oddly enough, stacking firewood is my favorite new chore. It is a Zen-like activity that is both physical and mental. I’m learning which logs will fit together well and which will make stable end pieces. I can tell seasoned from unseasoned wood by the heft and smell of it. Seasoned wood is significantly lighter and makes a hollow clunking sound when I toss it on the pile. And my stacks are getting neater, though visitors would be wise not to walk too close to the pile by the barn; despite my best efforts, it’s leaning at a slightly precarious angle.

Now wherever I go, I notice people’s woodpiles and inevitably envy their neatness and size. It reminds me of the 2002 PBS reality series “Frontier House,” which sent three modern families to experience life on the frontier — specifically Montana in 1883. One man spent a lot of time splitting what looked like an impressive pile of wood only to have the experts come in for their final review and say it was a fraction of what his family would have needed to make it through the winter.

True West magazine did a fun tongue-in-cheek assessment of what would have happened to the various participants if they had actually lived in Montana in 1883. Their fates were pretty grim, and having enough firewood was the least of their worries.

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