The Wonders of a Woodpile

There is an ax in our garage, somewhere, down behind the rakes and the shovels. I am not acquainted with it. I am more familiar with the stack of logs beside our front door. My husband cuts and splits the wood; I stack it. We wood-burners work as a team. Most of our heat comes from a woodstove: a squatty, black, cast-iron behemoth that sits squarely in our living room. We feed it daily for six months of the year. But I've discovered that there's more joy to a woodpile than just burning it.

Such as watching it, listening to it.

By fall, I can see a cross section of our year - in wood. We collect four seasons' worth. Near the bottom of the pile are the remains of Maine's 1998 ice storm - mostly birches, followed by assorted elms and beeches and a maple that once held a tire swing. Then we cleaned out the orchard this summer, so we have apple wood in the next tier. In early September, I cut dry alders along the brook for "biscuit wood." That's our late-fall wood, which burns hot and fast, and is perfect for browning biscuits or taking off a morning chill. It crowns the top of the woodpile.

But my favorite wood lies at the very, very bottom of the pile. My heart sinks when we get close to these rotters, not for fear that we'll run out of firewood (we never do), but because they are the most fascinating of the logs. What we thought for years was dead wood is, in fact, teeming with life.

Besides the hairy-looking splotches called lichens, soft mosses and dainty white toadstools cling to these rough logs. The most adorned have been in the pile for more than five years. Beetles and carpenter ants drill tunnels through them, then other creatures move in. In the summer, we see snails and salamanders escape the heat by crawling into the cracks and crevices.

Daily I pass what poet Paul Fleischman calls "joyful noise," nature's melodies. The noisemakers are the crickets and the katydids trilling and chirping under these logs. A bark-cracking woodpecker may join in. I hear the buzz of the whirring cicada and the drone of the honeybee. A squirrel chatters, and a mouse squeaks. All is burrowing, nesting, creeping, singing, and persevering. No day is a trifling day at the bottom of a woodpile.

Could a log be a busier place than a tree? I wonder.

Now that I've gotten to know wood so well, I've changed my mind about collecting it. It used to slide from a big red dump trunk in the middle of the driveway, leaving us a chaotic mountain of ash and pine and birch. Nowadays, I much prefer discovering our own timber and remembering where it came from.

In a nearby field, I come upon a pine. Its furrowed bark breaks easily into puzzle pieces, and its dark rings have faded to gray, making the log a timeless piece. It was a summer lightning storm that had brought it down. I place it beside our other "fast burners."

By late fall we've cleaned up the yards and woodlands, and soon the woodpile towers above us in abundance.

Fortunately, a lantern hangs nearby, and as the days darken and the air turns brisk, its amber light guides me to just the log I'm looking for.

I am proud to say that, by touch alone, I can pick out biscuit wood in a snap. But first I try to hear the "joyful noise." Even in winter.

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