Updated: Nov 1, 2020
We count it as progress that many things in life that once were obligatory are now optional, even recreational. Being transported by horse, for instance, or eating by candlelight. Those who lived with the necessity usually don't understand the recreational aspect. My mom, for instance, grew up in an Oklahoma farmhouse heated by the wood stove in the kitchen and she doesn’t miss it. She doesn’t miss the outhouse either. There is a mansion here in Pittsburgh, built in 1868, where my chamber music group plays a yearly November concert (not this year, obviously). Pittsburgh was, in the 1800s, one of the jumping-off places where pioneers heading West spent the last of their money on supplies. The outfitters became wealthy, and Holmes Hall was built by the widow of one of the two main ones. The mansion housed sixteen people: the widow and her daughter, and fourteen servants, one whose sole job was to attend to the dozen or so coal burners throughout the house. Most citizens had to attend to the chore themselves. Someone who grew up cutting and hauling wood because he/she would have frozen otherwise might wonder why anybody would do it who doesn't have to.
As I look at the mess in my driveway, I almost wonder that myself. Lately I’ve been getting my weekly spec pipe done plus a few commissions, but I’ve had to spend a bit of time working on firewood so that someday soon my driveway will become a driveway again. A White Oak on my property had branches touching my neighbor’s house and his insurance company, yada yada yada. The result is a bunch of wood that needs to be bucked and split. I hadn’t quite finished with a maple that the electric company felled in the yard across the corner earlier this summer.
Firewood cutting wasn’t an aspiration, it just happened.
My experience with woodcutting growing up in the Pacific Northwest was limited to one episode. Although we heated with fuel oil, we had a fireplace in the living room and liked having a fire now and then. My dad decided that those compressed sawdust logs we’d been using were too expensive, so he rented a big, heavy beast of a chainsaw (they were ALL big and heavy back then) and we headed to a public wood lot and spent the day in the rain and mud filling our green Chevy pickup with alder. Which is not very good firewood on several counts, which is probably why that’s all there was. A reasonable person might wonder why, when half his neighbors were loggers, a science teacher would be mucking about in the woods with a chainsaw, but that's how my dad did things and I guess you could wonder the same thing about an orchestral clarinetist. Anyway, we hauled it home, split it, and stacked it in the basement garage where it would be out of the rain.
Ah, rain. “Pacific Northwest” may not be sufficiently precise — we lived in the Olympic rain shadow on the Washington coast. Clouds would roll in off the Pacific, back up against the Olympic mountains, and dump rain. In the winter it rarely snowed, but it might rain for weeks on end, and over 100 inches of rain a year was not uncommon. So, even though our wet alder was out of the rain it wasn’t out of the humidity and it never dried. When it could be coaxed into burning it smoked horribly and gave no heat. It finally started to rot and breed legions of sowbugs (aka woodlouses, and, interestingly, not insects at all but rather crustaceans), so we had to load it back in the pickup and haul it off.
My firewood attempt in our first house in Pittsburgh fared little better. A huge sassafras fell across the driveway so I bought a cheap Poulan chainsaw and got to work. Sassafras isn’t terrible firewood but our fireplace (along with the rest of the house) was was poorly designed. It was right next to the side door everyone used, it was too shallow, and the chimney was too short for its width so the draft was weak. Adding all that up, every time somebody opened the door the fireplace would belch smoke into the living room.
We got out of there, somehow, and the new (current) house was different. In addition to the living room fireplace with its 25-foot chimney with a fierce draft there was a wood stove in the sun room, a back patio that had been enclosed. Another thing the house came with was trees. Lots of them. Looking up our house on Google Earth when we first bought it, you couldn’t see the house, the corner of the block was solid green. The lady who had lived alone in the house for 34 years had a thing for trees, and any volunteer that got a start in the yard was allowed to stay. Her children who were selling the house had removed a few trees from the front yard so you could see the house from the street, but right after we moved in we had three huge Black Locusts cut that were just a few feet from the northeast corner of the house.
Excellent firewood, requiring more and bigger chainsaws, topping out at a 90cc Stihl 66 Magnum. It would pull a 36-inch bar, but I usually kept a 24-inch bar on it and ran it when I was in the mood for a big, loud saw that would blast through a cut like a top fuel dragster through the quarter mile. I sold it to finance something else, along with a couple other saws I now wish I’d kept. It’s the way it goes.
Firewood also requires splitting. I don’t have a hydraulic splitter, mostly because splitting wood is exercise I actually enjoy. I’ve gone through various splitting mauls; I did a lot with the standard 6-pound hardware-store maul, and spent way too much on a Gransfors Bruks hand-forged one. But the best hand splitting tool ever devised is the Fiskars Super Splitter. Unfortunately, they don’t make it anymore, although the current model X-27 is pretty close. People complained that the Super Splitter was too short so Fiskars lenghtened and lightened it but the original is better. The complainers just didn’t learn how to use it. It’s perfect, like an armor-piercing round for wood. When it was discontinued I bought a couple of extras and am not close to wearing out the original so I should be set.
While a fire in a fireplace is pretty, it‘s an inefficient source of heat, sucking nearly as much heat out of the room and sending it up the chimney as it puts out. So we installed an insert — a high efficiency sealed wood burner — in the living room fireplace which darn near heats the whole house. At the moment I have five cords of wood stacked, three seasoned. Probably have another cord waiting in the driveway. In the past I’ve had as many as a dozen cords stacked. Yard trees contributed a lot of that, especially in the first few years when getting rid of the big, dangerous ones was a priority. First I had the trees cut that were going to fall on my house, then I had trees cut that were going to fall on my neighbor’s house. There were two huge red oaks in the backyard with a pipe in between them for a swing. When they were taken down, one was solid and almost 200 years old. The other was a hollow shell no more than a few inches thick at the base.
That was close. I think the recent Oak takes us to twelve trees we’ve had taken down. We could stand to cut four or five more but I’m fresh out of $1,200 bills.
Along the way I started supplementing the yard tree supply with scavenging. At one point I bought a well-used Ford Ranger pickup which became my daily driver and firewood getter. 170,000 miles when I bought it, donated it at nearly 240K when shock mounts rusted off the frame. Friends, or friends of friends, were always having trees taken down, and the truck came in handy.
One friend called and said that his neighbor had just lost six big cherry trees in a storm. A company had come in and cleaned up the mess but the trunks were piled in his neighbor’s back yard, should he recommend me? Sure. I talked to the neighbor and went to see the project. The backyard had no vehicle access; the wood would have to be wheelbarrowed out between houses to the street. I almost said no, but another friend was getting into firewood too and wanted some, so I said ok. We made an appointment for the following Saturday. Friday evening, the guy called and said that he’d been thinking; he’d paid the tree company $6,000 to clean up his back yard, he needed to get some money out of the wood. I replied that that often location makes the difference between a salable commodity and a pain in the ass. Bucked and stacked next to the road, his wood might be a commodity; piled in his back yard, it was a pain in the ass which was why the tree company LEFT IT THERE. He might want money but he needed that wood to disappear, and if he could find someone willing to pay him for the privilege of humping it around the side of his house in a wheelbarrow, good on him.
Two weeks later he called back and I resisted the urge to tell him removal was going to cost him $50 an hour now. Four cords worth by the time it was all done.
Another score: I was coming home from lunch at a friend’s house one Saturday and at the intersection three blocks from my house a crew was taking down an enormous Oak. A sign said “free firewood.” I went home, put on my boots, drove back and started loading my Ranger. Other folks came with trucks and trailers, but they were picky, only taking straight, easy pieces. I knew what the crew needed, which was clean ground to work, and took everything, crotches, knots, twisted bits. I worked like a maniac, seven loads in four hours, and the last couple of pieces took everything I had to get over the tailgate. I gave the the foreman a twenty and said thanks, I was tapping out, but if he needed a place to dump anything I lived three blocks away. I was lying in bed waiting for the ibuprofen to kick in when I heard the beeping of the truck backing up the driveway. They had brought me the entire trunk of the tree: six sections, the largest over 30 inches in diameter and over 30 inches in length. That big saw with the 36-inch bar came in handy. Probably three or four cords in one afternoon.
Nowadays it’s easy to feel a certain lack of control. The price of gas, your utility bills, your property taxes, it gets done to you. Cutting firewood, seasoning it, and burning it for warmth feels effective and substantial in a way that sending a portion of your paycheck to the gas company doesn’t. And there is something atavistically satisfying about a fire. A real fire that requires feeding and attention, not one that you click on with a remote control. A hearth, the thing that separated man who used fire from animals who feared it, gathers a family.
Of course, bringing fire into a modern house requires work that early man didn’t need to worry about. Like chimney cleaning. That involved a bit of learning, some of it involuntary. See that orange rope? Looks new, right? Just a little while before this picture was taken I learned that the time to replace that rope that you use to extend the 25-foot ladder is BEFORE it gets old and breaks, because it will break at the moment of greatest strain — when the ladder is almost fully extended — sending the top half hurtling back down at you like a trap in the Temple of Doom. My dad used to say, “Why pay for incompetence when you can do it yourself and have it for free?” I would gladly pay someone to climb up there and sweep my chimney because I HATE it but my experience thus far with local chimney companies has proved my dad’s maxim. While the dream house will have a wood stove because I like heating with wood, the chimney/stovepipe will be sweepable from the ground.
There is a certain satisfaction to hitting something hard and having it break, which pretty well describes splitting wood by hand. Over the years I’ve worked out a lot of frustration at the woodpile, and I’ve lost quite a bit of weight, albeit temporarily. There is also satisfaction in the eagerness and controlled violence of a chainsaw with a sharp chain. And satisfaction in seeing warmth stacked in your back yard, more tangible (if less liquid) than a bank balance. Yes, converting the digits on your phone into natural gas from the utility company is easier, and it's nice to have gas to take up the slack when you can't keep the fire burning 24/7. Around here, many people out away from the city and natural gas lines heat with wood — it’s either wood or propane, and hardwood is plentiful while propane prices can be volatile. If you live in the city and have natural gas, heating with wood is optional, even recreational, but . . . reasons. Something my dad taught by example is that while there will usually be a finite amount of money, there is a limitless supply of work.
Experience has shown that to be less than universally true, or perhaps it's more true when you're young. When you're young you don't think about how much Advil it's going to take to get moving the next morning, and you haven't yet had the stem of your house's main water shutoff valve crumble when you turned it and start shooting water into your basement. When it's Sunday afternoon, and you don’t have the special wrench to turn off the water at the street. But we were talking about firewood. I’m not at the point where heating with wood is the difference between making it and not making it, but I’m also not at the point where saving 60% on my gas bill is anything to sneeze at. And I need the exercise. So, as long as trees keep coming down, I’ll keep burning them.