Morning sun bathed the slope behind the house in golden light as I inventoried my stock of future firewood. I leaned on the window sill, coffee in hand, looking into the woods on our three acres for blowdowns after the big winds recently.
The old oak that was topped in a storm two years ago survived; it will probably leaf out for another season on its remaining branches. A cherry that was topped in the same storm is now stacked in stove-length chunks, waiting for a ride to the splitting block and woodshed. Although I can’t see them from my vantage point at the house, I know there are at least two oaks down further up the slope. Inventory completed, I turned toward breakfast.
So it is, as the wood burning season comes to a close, I begin to prepare for next winter.
Gretchen and I have been burning wood for at least part of our home heating for most of our married life – some 47 years. Wood making tools – powerful saws with chain brakes, protective chaps, helmet, ear protection and face guard – have improved dramatically since I worked in the woodlot we owned for years near Lodi. But the basics of hauling, splitting and stacking remain the same, as do the chores of cleaning the chimney and carrying bags of wood from the shed to the porch during the cold seasons.
Why, one may wonder, would an old guy in modern America cling to this task?
I tell myself that I continue to make wood to stay fit and because we both enjoy the cozy warmth of the woodstove on a cold winter evening. But I know that there’s more to it. How much more to it was spelled out nicely in a book my daughter, Jen, bought me for Christmas.
“Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way” by Lars Mytting explains that it’s in my Scandinavian genes. For the early Norwegians, he said, “Gathering fuel was one of the most crucial of all tasks, and the calculation was simplicity itself: a little, and you would freeze. Too little, and you would die.”
While other parts of the world that have burned wood for heat have mainly shifted to other sources, Scandinavians have actually increased their use of wood because of the ready supply from their forests and the development of clean-burning stoves. Even with its oil-riches, Norway still gets 25 percent of its heating from wood, Mytting said.
His book is a delightful mix of history, how-to tips, technical information on wood heating values, wood pile aesthetics and this research-based reason why I heat with wood: A Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences study “appeared to confirm that a ‘wood age’ does indeed exist as a distinct and measurable state.” Men more than 60 years of age spend the most time dealing with wood, and an interest in firewood can be related to a man’s view of himself as a provider. Also, retirees need “an arena in which to continue doing useful work.”
So I am of the “wood age” and that explains why I proudly ask Gretchen to come look at the woodshed when it is finally filled, ready for the next season; I’ve provided the promise of warmth. And there’s a reason why I sit quietly at times on the chopping block listening to wind in the trees as I take a break from splitting and stacking. This year it will be a quiet break from the incivility and crudeness of what passes for political discourse in our country. Mr. Mytting might find our politics hard to understand, but it creates the need for peacefulness he attributes to physical labor.
A mix of oak, cherry, hickory, ash and elm remains in the shed, standing unused in a rank after a mild winter. I’ll be refilling the shed in the weeks ahead with wood already cut during the past year and stored under tarps. We’ll again enjoy the ancient comfort of wood fire about the time the rhetorical flames of this election fade. I will welcome both events.