Posted by: SDHSPress | 12/01/2009

The Time of Fire

The winter’s wood is in—two cords of oak, hackberry, mulberry, ash and elm. If it’s an average winter, there should be a little left when spring finally comes, or at least that’s the plan. Trudging through ice or snow to cut and carry wood is not my idea of fun, though more than once I’ve been reduced to that. Among the beauties of “retirement,” of not reporting to work every day, is that jobs like cutting wood can be spread over time, and can actually be pleasurable instead of a chore.

That being said, October’s weather egged me on with a sense of urgency I might not otherwise have felt. Day after day of clouds and drizzle and below average temperatures warned me that winter could be long, and time to prepare cut short. By the end of the month we had already burned the wood that generally takes us to Thanksgiving. Yet I resisted the alarm I might have felt in working years, when I relied on stolen weekend hours to lay in wood. Instead I labored a couple of hours at a stretch, no longer than I could enjoy the job, then knocked off for a ramble or some less strenuous pursuit.

Then November rolled around, and just to prove her sense of balance, Mother Nature gave us October weather in November—calm, dry, sunny days. The sun heated our geo-solar home every day but three from Halloween to Thanksgiving, so we approach December with the north wall of the garage stacked to the ceiling with dry wood. A pile of elm trunks waits outside to be split, but that is a job for mornings when the thermometer hugs zero, when wood splits readily and hard work feels good, when you tackle the wood that heats you thrice, once when cut, a second time when split and finally when we sit by the stove.

Our hardest firewood is oak, but oaks rarely die. Ash ranks a close second in the British Thermal Units of solar energy packed into a cubic foot of wood. I like ash because its grain grows straight. On a cold January day, a seasoned chunk of 12-inch trunk will split with a single blow of an axe-faced maul. Compared to the interwoven grain of elm, ash measures up poorly in heating thrice. I have sweated in shirtsleeves on a sunny zero-degree day splitting elm, while for ash I require a jacket or vest. The other woods we burn fall between ash and elm on the scale of heat and sweat that splitting generates.

Three common native trees I don’t bother to cut for the stove—cottonwood, willow and box elder. These soft woods produce nearly as much ash as heat, as well as more air pollution and greenhouse gas, and if you forget to tend the fire, it dies.

Tomorrow is December, and whatever the weatherman says, we know the season of real winter is about to begin. When the sun doesn’t shine, we will be ready. Like ancient ancestors, we will sit cozily by the fire, luxuriating in the slow release of energy the sun has patiently stored for decades in the cells of living trees.




  1. You have a natural rhythm to your tasks. I do see your connectedness to a large picture of nature and its processes. Particularly, I like the nexus of sun, tree, heat, and sweat. Larger still, the timelessness of the fire and its adherents, now and in the past. Quite refined, quite deep, peaceful.

  2. Thank you again, Jack. It’s nice to know that others see things in ways similar to me.

  3. Your writing is so authentic, so real. I like reading about people who are leading real lives, close to the earth. I particularly like your closing comment about fire. Nothing like a wood stove on a cold night. It’s meditative and brings out an almost primordial feeling in me. “The cells of living trees,” reminds me of the inter-connectedness of all life. I’m glad I came across your blog. Nice.

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