It's time. The leaves have turned, the cat stayed in last night, we're using the furnace instead of the air conditioner. I dig through the pile of "do not discard" papers on the kitchen counter for the name and phone number of the man who brought us wood last year.
It was good, dry, seasoned hardwood, the right size and shape for our fireplace, so I hope he's still delivering. Wet or green wood smokes and coats the chimney with flammable creosote. Softwood burns fast and hot but has no staying power. Hardwood is slow-starting but long-burning and produces more heat.
I didn't grow up with a fireplace. Our family home in small-town Idaho in the 1950s had an oil-burning stove in the living room. It was the only source of heat for the house. On cold winter mornings, I'd stumble, shivering, out of my frigid bedroom with an armload of clothes and dress by the warmth of the stove. I could see the glow of the flames through the little isinglass window.
Sometimes, subzero temperatures interfered with the flow of fuel from the oil barrel that sat on a stand in back of the house. My father, with me as his helper, would trudge out into the bitter weather, the snow, and the darkness - these episodes always seemed to take place at night - and get things thawed and reconnected while I held the flashlight.
As an adult, I've always been partial to fireplaces: the coziness, the scent of wood smoke, the security of a backup heat source if the power fails. I even like the fall ritual of getting in the wood supply. It usually involves a round of calls to see who can deliver; sometimes I work my way through the classified ads' "Fuel" section.
Then there's scheduling the delivery, moving the cars out of the driveway, cleaning out the wood room next to the garage, and waiting for the truck to arrive. It's always an older truck, laboring stolidly up the driveway in reverse. Not an older truck as in "run-down," but as in having seen hard use but performed faithfully and well.
Usually somebody rides along: a spouse, a relative, or a child. There's always conversation as they unload, tossing the wood onto the driveway with hollow "thocking" sounds as it hits the concrete.
This year, it's the same man as the past two years. He hadn't planned to start delivering so soon, but when I told him I was completely out of firewood, he said he'd bring some of what he had left from last season and sell it to me at last year's prices. He had to put me off for a week because his excavating business kept him busy replacing culverts after a storm damaged several local bridges.
His young daughter is along. He tells me she's learned to run the splitter, and she tells me she's going to be in the Apple Festival parade tomorrow, riding the family's antique tractor.
At the end, I ask if cash is OK. Yes, he grins; it's become our standing joke. He hates to use credit cards and always has stories of places that refuse to take cash.
We say goodbye, and the truck drives off into the night. Tomorrow I have several hours of stacking ahead of me, but I'm looking forward to it. The day will be crisp and clear. I'll savor the exhilaration of being outdoors, the rhythmic swelling of the neat stack, the anticipation of the first fire of the season and many fires to come.
It's one of those moments when getting in the wood and having the strength to stack it seem all that one could ask of life.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society