Hard Lessons in Heating With Wood

ON very cold days in the city, I used to wonder where the heat came from, where the hot water was boiled and whether the two were related. My wife, Blake, and I have lived with both water radiators and hot-air heat, and though I assumed the heat probably came from some boiler in the basement, I was never really sure. When we moved into a building with no basement I was particularly puzzled.

``Who cares where it comes from?'' Blake berated me. ``Just as long as it doesn't stop. We're in the city; you're not supposed to understand these things.''

But I couldn't keep myself from imagining some monster furnace buried deep beneath the ground burning away and pumping heat into all the basementless buildings in the city along a network of old pipes. Not until we moved to a small country town did I become connected with heat and where it comes from.

There was a wood stove in our new home, and the frontier spirit having fully possessed me, I decided to heat the house with wood. I'd had minimal experience with wood heat. The only time I'd burned wood was in the tiny fireplace of our city apartment. I burned the convenient grocery-store yule logs because that was the closest thing to real wood I could find.

On advice from friends, I ordered two cords of seasoned wood to burn my first year and two cords of unseasoned for the next. The wood seller asked me on the phone how I planned to separate the wood; he brought it all in one load, and it would get mixed up when he dumped it. I asked him if it was hard to tell the difference.

``No,'' a grating voice said. ``The unseasoned wood is much heavier.''

I thought that an appropriate way for a wood seller to describe the difference, considering they spend so much of their time lifting the logs. However, in my mind I pictured the unseasoned wood as colored green and the seasoned wood as tan. I wouldn't have to weigh each piece.

The second mistake I made was estimating how much wood I was getting myself into. I'd never seen a cord of wood. It was hard picturing 128 cubic feet of wood, but I figured that for $100 you couldn't get much of anything, even wood. I was wrong. The truck that backed into my driveway one cold gray November morning looked more like the type of dump truck they use at construction sites to haul away the tops of mountains.

``This is all mine?'' I asked the driver.

A scruffy face poked out the window. ``Yup, all four cords. Better stand back there.''

The bed of the truck careened toward the low overcast sky. The back of the truck swung open like a garage door and the four cords of wood fell out with a thunderous roar. It was 7 o'clock in the morning. From the vibration and the sound of the clatter, I judged no one in my neighborhood would be sleeping in. The rumbling seemed to reverberate for a good minute before my driveway was buried under split wood.

``That'll be $400,'' the man said.

I looked at the wood, spilling onto the lawn. ``Are you sure?'' I said. As I wrote out the check I felt sorry for this man who was getting paid so diminutive a price for such a gargantuan effort. I would take nothing less than $400 just to put that amount of wood in the truck, let alone chop it down, drag it out of the woods, and split it.

THAT night I began to stack. I soon found that in the light from my garage all wood looked alike, seasoned or unseasoned. And trying to weigh each log was pointless. In my arms, they all felt like lead weights and were as hard as iron bars. I carried the wood in bundles in my arms as a full moon rose above my neighbor's house. Two hours later, a higher moon shone down upon a wall of our house that was now sided in stacked wood. Unfortunately, the pile in the driveway hadn't changed shape one iota.

My wife had instructed me in the science of stacking before I began this Herculean task. She told me to crisscross the wood at the ends of the stack; that would hold up the middle. Having weathered five Vermont winters, she knew about these things.

My first stack got to shoulder height before one side collapsed and the wood spilled back to earth. There was more to this science than simple geometry. I looked at the mess and called it a night.

When the first snows came there were still two piles of wood in the driveway. The pile of seasoned and unseasoned wood I'd originally bought and a new pile of only seasoned wood. I'd given up trying to separate out logs that would burn from logs that merely sizzled. The piles turned into white mounds as the snow deepened. I spent much of the winter brushing snow off wood and lugging it indoors.

No one could say I wasn't involved in the heating of my house now. I knew the forests where the wood came from. I knew the man who chopped the trees down, cut them up, split them, and brought them to my house. I also knew who tried to stack them, brought them into the house, dried them off, and attempted to light a fire with them. This knowledge came at a price.

But even now as I recall the cold fall days and evenings, the strong musty smell of wood, a black winter sky, a warm glowing stove, and the feeling of a job well done, it all seems worth it. I'd become connected with more than just heat and the art of staying warm, and the memories of the process are far more valuable than the memory of the simple turn of a dial.

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