Coin of the Realm

Around here firewood is coin of the realm. About this time every year people get serious about putting in wood against the Winter ahead. Every yard has a pile of split cord wood waiting to be stacked, pyramids of sawed blocks ready to go through the splitter, or sheds crammed full of seasoned sticks air drying for the inevitable. You can tell a lot about the financial position of the homeowner by the way the wood is stacked. The poorer homes toss a blue tarp over the hill of wood and pull out what they need from under a cover of snow all Winter long while those with nicer homes feature stand alone wood sheds, or built in wood closets next to the mudroom where their wood is artistically stacked; black ash usually with it’s butter cream pith glowing in the sun, or the russet color of red oak the two most coveted hardwoods available.

Some people take delivery of picker loads from the local timber men, twenty of so sticks of mature leaders dropped by the side of the house where the homeowner has a chance to sharpen his chainsaw and splitting skills and save the premium for split wood delivered a cord at a time by dump trucks. The sound of Huskies and Stihls is a familiar one during the last few weeks of Summer and it lets you know that it’s almost over.

The calls start coming in around August and the early birds always ask the same question, “is it dry?” Fire wood is either green, seasoned or dry, with the last being the most desired and fetching a premium. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to heat a house when it’s ten below using green wood. It smokes, it hisses and crackles, it coats the chimney with creosote and it heats as efficiently as an oil lamp. Seasoned cord wood means that it was cut in one season to be burned in another, better than green, but not quite as good as dry.

Dry wood means that it was cut, blocked, split and dried in ricks for at least a year. For the really serious folks only standing dead wood will do. This is wood harvested from select trees that have died while rooted and air dried for years before harvest. There is little moisture left in these trees before they are split and next to nothing by the time they are fed into the wood stove. The old timers will actually ask for “deadwood oak” and pay a premium for it.

The key to heating with fire wood is to build the coal bank properly- first the tinder, usually split sticks of hemlock or pine ignited by sheets of white birch bark, then the kindling; white ash, poplar, easy to split with a hand ax and fast to catch fire. When the fire is good an hot the denser woods like oak and cherry, rock maple and apple are added until a bed of red hot coals fills the firebox and delivers a constant dry heat into the house, requiring minimal tending and only an occasional feeding of fresh logs.

There is plenty to be said for the convenience of an oil furnace and forced air heat, but they require expensive maintenance and ducts push dust and debris around the house and the cost of oil is never cheap. Wood heat is something special and the smell is comforting. It is easy to overlook where our warmth comes from when the only involvement we have is with a thermostat on a wall, but it is unforgettable when you use wood.

They say that if you chop your own wood it heats you twice- first when you cut it and next when you burn it. Whoever said that was one of the guys we deliver to. Wood heats you half a dozen times at least. When you timber the trees and limb them, when you load the stems to the yard, when you cut and block them, when you split and when you stack, when you load and deliver and when you finally burn them up, one piece at a time. Wood, as an agricultural product, is one of the most reliable outputs a farm has.

They say up here that New Hampshire wants to be a forest and it only takes a couple of years to learn that truth. Everywhere one can see the shadow of overgrown fields rapidly returning to second growth woods, the stone walls buried beneath the verdant cover of saplings and forbs. You cannot cut and split enough for your customers to satisfy their demand by the end of Winter if it is a hard one. The key to that of course is timing and location.

You can have enough on hand, but if there’s a hard snow getting it off the property when there’s two foot of cover on the stacks is another matter. Try as hard as we might, its impossible to get everyone to take delivery before the weather sets in. There is always the frantic call in March, right in the middle of sugaring when we least can afford to deliver a half cord, but do it anyway and the question at the end is always the same, “is it dry?”

Firewood is nothing more than stored energy awaiting release. If you think about the process, how the Sun plus the soil equals the tree, you realize the magic of the world. Energy pours forth and creates matter which in turn releases the energy. Summer in the midst of Winter, all contained in a block of wood. I feel more like a sorcerers apprentice at times than a farmer. I help control the chaos of Nature as it moves through it’s steady and seasonal course, but it is the inner workings of Nature itself, its mathematical proofs and physics experiments operating without surcease that create the wonderful act of transformation, of one thing into another and back again.

I used to live in the world without thinking much about it. I stood in front of the Great Pyramid of Cheops when I was a younger man and I probably accepted what was said about it and all pyramids for that matter, that they were temples or tombs, that they represented the kings and pharaohs, the potentates and poobahs of some distant past and were ceremonial in nature, but I think I understand them better now.

Everything we produce in surplus, from composted manure to feedstock, grains and firewood, hayricks and mulches are piled for storage around the farm, stored energy in the form of matter and from a distance each one appears like a pyramid. I think those civilizations and cultures of the past saw it too and if they worshiped anything it wasn’t men, it was Nature’s ability to magically transform one thing into another so that we might last through another year and begin again to prepare for the next. And it was to this magical truth that they built their monuments.

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