The beautiful symmetry of stacked wood

It is an irony of life in Maine that after the long-awaited summer arrives, folks order up their winter's supply of wood, which is dumped unceremoniously in front yards or driveways, forming a jagged heap (and temporary residence for field mice and chipmunks).

This is Yankee fatalism at its best: After the exertions, trials, and challenges of an always-long winter, one's first thoughts, come the summer solstice, are of the wood stove that will be ignited four months hence. Still, once one gets over this idiosyncrasy of life here, there is a certain grandeur in the subsequent handling of wood.

Sometimes I think there is no symmetry as beautiful as a well-stacked woodpile. It seems that every household has its own ideal. Not far from my home, there lives a woman who has a stand of straight-as-a-rail firs growing on her property. Serendipity has spaced two of these trees at precisely the distance necessary for stacking a cord of wood.

Season upon season, I have watched her. First the wood - split and dry - is trucked in and dumped in a mass. Then she emerges from her home and approaches the delivery with the grace of a hostess welcoming guests. And then she begins to stack, laying the wood down in tiers, until she has tucked the pieces between the firs with the loving care of a mother bedding her children. By the end of July she is done and ready for another winter.

Other folks are cross-stackers: They put down a layer of split wood and then set the next layer at right angles, and the third at right angles to the second. Back and forth it goes, this tried-and-true means of keeping a woodpile from collapsing.

By far the most intriguing and creative stack was one I saw in a remote corner of Maine. The artist had dedicated an ornate gazebo to the exclusive purpose of sheltering his wood.

When I saw this construction, winter was already under way and part of the pile had been consumed, affording me a cross-sectional view. I was able to see how the lengths had been arranged in a spiral, some six layers across, filling the gazebo. I could only speculate on the satisfaction the architect of this masterpiece must have felt when he observed, then partook, of his handiwork. (Only a true artist has the fortitude to destroy what he's created, then start over.)

As for my own woodpile, I'm a minimalist. I lay down a base of hardwood pallets (freebies from a local mill), then stack my wood to and fro, in a long line, braced at one end by the garden shed. No cross-stacking, no trees to hold them in embrace, no spiraling. Week after week, the pile grows in height and length. Because of this lazy approach, the pile periodically tumbles. But no matter, this requires only another pallet, which makes room for yet more wood.

I have always been intrigued by the occasional woodpile that seems to have been abandoned. These piles are recognizable by their serenity, their grayness, and the decay at their bases as they compost themselves back into the earth.

Robert Frost wrote a lovely tribute to an abandoned woodpile, and I never cease to recall his words whenever I see one of these forgotten works:

The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.

It's true: If the owner of a woodpile does not tend it, nature will. I have seen forgotten woodpiles overgrown with ground ivy and nightshade, their borders softened by goldenrod and purple-headed thistle. These piles are movable feasts, displays of progressive loveliness as each season adds its highlights: flowers in spring and summer, a crown of fallen leaves in autumn, and soft pelts of snow in winter. Of course, whether a woodpile is actively tapped for the wood stove or left to fend for itself, it warms, as Frost pointed out in the conclusion of his poem:

I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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