Down East 2013 ©
To most people, a roadside stack of cordwood means basically one thing: heating fuel for the winter. Ordinarily, a pile of cordwood is no more significant than a tank of propane outside a kitchen or electrical wires leading from a pole to the attic. Even for those Mainers who order a stack delivered each year, it usually remains just a collection of sliced and diced trees.
But for those of us who have cut the wood, split it, hauled it, stacked it, re-hauled, and re-stacked it ourselves, firewood has a myriad of meanings. And every autumn, I am reminded how much there is to the process and how much richer burning wood makes my life.
On a hot, dry day early in the fall, my internal alarm clock goes off, and I know that the summer sun has completed its work on the stack of cordwood that I cut myself from our lot the previous autumn. Like much of the forested land in Maine, our patch of mixed hardwoods and softwoods has been neglected for the last hundred years or so. Local foresters, therefore, advised my wife and me to practice better stewardship through cleanup and selective cutting. I am reminded of this sage advice when I heft a hunk of maple on a warm September day and begin to think back about the living thing this log once was.
The splintery piece of maple reminds me of the tree that was a victim of the Patriot’s Day storm a few years ago. With hurricane-like ferocity, that April storm found the maple’s weak link: a crotch in which airborne debris was captured year after year, eventually causing some mild, undetectable rot. When the April wind came along, it snapped the tree in half like an old wishbone.
In remembering this particular maple I also recollect the storm’s aftermath. Because of downed trees, we lost power for several days — as well as a freezer full of bargain dinners. Fortunately, a friend of a friend of a friend who didn’t lose power came to our rescue with a small, surprise generator. Smiling at that memory, I recall the toilets we flushed with water from temporary streams across our washed-out road. I remember the nose-wrinkling smell when one of our cats singed its hair on a candle on one powerless evening. The pleasant memories grow as restacking the wood begins to make me perspire.
A weighty birch log brings to mind political debates that would otherwise seem far away. The heart of the log was beginning to rot when I cut down an otherwise healthy-looking tree. And the politics there? Well, white birches are a cold-loving tree. The more brutal the winter and cheerless the summer, the better they grow. So even in my midcoast forest, there are lots of birches. But a recent spate of increasingly warmer summers and less severe winters has increased the natural culling process among our birches, beginning with trees that rot more readily from the inside out — much like the log in my gloved hands.
As I restack the wood in our barn, architecture becomes the next topic for consideration. As every cordwood burner knows, mice inevitably make their home in a stack of winter fuel in the shed or barn. So it’s important to stack in a manner that allows the cats to patrol the rows and keep the vermin to a bare minimum. Stacking then becomes as much a matter of engineering as a chore. Can kitty nab a rodent in this corner of cantilevered logs?
Inevitably, the topic of modern finance comes to mind, too. My mute stack of winter fuel plays monetary games even the best and the brightest of Wall Street might admire. For instance, part of the pile is poplar, which to the untrained eye may appear to be the same as maple. But it’s got half the heating value and should be valued accordingly. The oak has half-again the density of maple, so it should be worth half again as much. Is pricing cordwood as tricky as those infamous mortgage-backed securities?
In any case, perhaps the next time you see a stack of cordwood in Maine, you may consider it more than the representation of yet another mindless chore. At the very least, it can also be a source of fond memories, puzzling debates, and the occasional amusing insight. Not to mention pleasant warmth on a January night.