The many ways wood warms us

It's 5:30 in the morning, dark and cold. Reluctantly, I get out of my warm bed to start the fire. The iron of the woodstove is cold. One or two fugitive embers lie buried in the ashes. I crumple paper and lay kindling.

The flame from the wooden kitchen match licks silently along the edge of the paper. I huddle by the door of the stove. Then comes the first pop and crackle as the wood catches. Pulling the rocking chair close, I sit with my slippers on the fender waiting for the iron to heat, the warmth to spread through the room.

Twenty-odd years ago, reeling from the jump in oil costs, people we knew either had a woodstove or were thinking about getting one. Firewood cutting was a regular activity, and the finer points of woodstoves a topic of conversation. This dwindled over the years as friends decided that wood is too dirty, too much work, too inconvenient. They switched to gas.

Our home is still heated with wood, and it is true that bits of bark and sawdust get strewn around as the logs are carried in, and ashes fall in a trail as they are carried out. And getting up on cold mornings to start the fire can be a dismal chore, yet I will not willingly trade any of the pleasures of the fire for the ease of the thermostat.

I would miss the summer days devoted to cutting firewood. A firewood day begins bright and early ... with groans and whining. "Not today! I wanted to...."

By the time lunch is packed and the chain saw and family are loaded in the pickup, we are down to sulks and under- the-breath mutterings. "I don't know why we have to do this, no one else does!" or, more succinctly, "This stinks!"

In the hot summer, the valleys smell of hay and dust and heat, but as you drive higher, up into the forest, the air is suddenly cooler, filled with the scent of pines. We follow logging roads. Sulks are forgotten as we look for trees, dead standing, three or four together, we hope, and not far from the road.

We pull over, and the chain saw is hauled to the first tree. I gather kids close, standing well back and uphill. We watch through the trees.

The chain saw whines, its motor straining. Then comes the crack and the crash as the tree falls, its power and strength visible in that moment.

Now we take a breath and start down the hill. As Dad cuts, we carry the logs to the truck and load them. We wend our way back and forth between bushes, over the low spot on the fallen fir. Our arms and legs get scratched.

Another tree crashes down, and we work to load as fast as he can cut. We are working smoothly; the stack in the pickup grows higher. Dad checks the load. "One more," he announces. There is a chorus of groans. Isn't that enough?

Down comes another tree. Loading is slower now, and harder. With scratched arms and aching shoulders, we have to lift the logs higher to stack the load. Everyone is hot and tired. But there was room for one more tree.

We stop for lunch. It seems suddenly quiet. We are thirsty, with sweaty faces and dirty arms. We itch with heat and sawdust. Perched on the tailgate, we eat sandwiches and plums and drink water from frozen bottles with a chunk of ice bumping the sides as we drink.

We see things in the woods we would miss if our chore did not take us here. Firs so big it takes three sets of arms to reach around their massive trunks.

"These are my favorite trees," says Ben, one hand on the deep-ridged bark, looking up. We watch a woodpecker. Here we find the clumps of wildflowers or the skeleton of an elk. I like the smell of the woods, the clean scent of the pines, the earthy smell of years of fallen needles, the sharp smell of the new-cut wood.

Time to go.

Dad checks the load and we drive slowly down, admiring the views. On the way home we stop for ice cream cones.

The hardest part is stacking the logs at home in the hot afternoon. In the evening as the air cools, I go out and find my husband looking at the growing woodpile. He puts his arm around me and we look together, feeling pleased. It's like looking at the quarts of beans and tomatoes on the pantry shelf.

In the fall, when the heating season begins, I like the clunk of the wood as the boys fill the woodbox. When you hit the log just right with the splitting maul, there is a crack and an easy split, like hitting a baseball with the bat's sweet spot.

These days, my older son does the splitting, enjoying his new strength and skill. He comes to the kitchen and lifts me off my feet. "I love being bigger than you," he tells me.

In the fall twilight I go out to tend the chickens, and the scent of wood smoke is in the air. I stand in the quiet. The line of trees along the river is gold, the sky deepening, the first stars shine. The smell of wood smoke brings back all the autumns I have known, my favorite season.

I love the sounds of the fire in the woodstove, the snap and crackle of the kindling as the fire starts on dark mornings. When the fire is going, burning well, it whispers and pops, and the heat radiates from the iron, comforting and steady. When the afternoon is gray and the winter light has drained all the color from the world outside, inside the fire is bright, companionable as the dog that comes to lie on your feet.

The woodstove is our only source of heat. It is not a decorative frill or an artificial symbol of hearth. It is a bond of hard work shared, of daily, necessary drudgery - splitting the wood, filling the woodbox, starting the fire - of working together for our common need. It is a way of sharing, like sitting down to supper together at the end of the day. Life with a thermostat would be easier, but poorer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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