One More Winter, Warm


Don’t get me wrong: I still love winter. It just doesn’t suit my bones quite as much as it did when I first started burning wood for heat. I think about that as I go out to the porch for another armload to cheerify the woodstove this cold, bleak morning.

I look out the window at this year’s woodpile and wince. A truckload of it has already curled up in white wisps out our chimney, and our cold of the year is mostly ahead of us.

To have next winter’s firewood stacked and drying is the ideal. But I will tell you, there’s some strange physics at work that dampens my good intentions to make this happen. I joke that the ground gets farther down with each passing year, and a pound of wood lifted from the ground weighs more than it used to. But I thought this was only in jest.

Yesterday, I set out to cut into truck-loadable lengths the several smallish trees felled by the power company in their line clearing of a few months back. It wouldn’t account for much of next year’s heat, but it was near the road, and the price was right.

But I hadn’t hoisted a half dozen lengths of it into the truck when I thought: this wood really is heavier than it was last year! What’s the story?

The difference was that this wood was green, still wet, and heavy. Almost 100% of the wood we have cut and stacked for our woodstove has been dead from natural causes and drying for years, the gift of ice storm damage, wind blow down, the consequences of insect-spread disease, or the collateral damage of unselective logging of our property more than 10 years ago. We have burned what would otherwise go to rot (and much of it has already started doing so).

But this heavy green wood will be a larger part of our future winter heat. There just isn’t enough deadfall left after our cleaning up what nature and chance leave us.

On this many acres of wooded hillside, you’d think firewood access would be no problem. But other than the “New Road” and pasture itself, we can’t get there from here. There is one other potential wood-gathering logging road down the length of our valley, but getting to the most of it requires fording the creek (which each year washes out any gentle grade I might have the neighbor make with his tractor).

The approach is steep and could only when frozen in the coldest part of winter could those angled acres of trees be reached without rutting out the road. And the road itself has sprouted back in poplars and sassafras too large to drive over; it would have to be brush-hogged and possibly regraded to be able to use it with my little 4WD truck.

To this list of woodgathering caveats, add the fact that I need not be splitting wood by hand using my old favorite once-orange 15 pound maul. Various spinal components consider this a form of torture, even though I love the manly thwack of a well-placed shot at a 14″ round of white oak.

But I will pay the price for a few more years. We roll with the punches. Wood the size of my leg and smaller is rising to the top of the menu. One day we’ll have to buy our wood cut and split.

Until then, find me cruising our road and pasture edges looking for standing-wizened locust, forked tulip poplar, badly scarred walnut (all of them seem to be!) and zig-zaggy cherries not suited to become future lumber. These modest, marginal trees I can lift and load into truck and woodstove without body damage.

And in this manner, if I take my time and mind my body mechanics, I can gather three or four cords of wood to carry my masculine illusions of independence along into my sixtieth winter next year.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Hang in there Fred. In a few more years of self-imposed pain, more years, you may consider a log-splitter a desirable alternative to manly thwacking with a 15 pound maul.

    A chain saw and logsplitter go a long way toward extending the working life of one’s body.

    I have been burning almost green wood for several years now and the trick seems to be that the fire needs to be bigger so that the green wood can dry out in time to burn nicely.

    Taking smaller bites has been essential. I do not try to move logs until I have cut them into 50 pound chunks. It is more work, but my back lasts longer this way.

    I agree that there is nothing like the satisfaction of heating a house through your own efforts.

  2. I think I heard you mention you have your chimney inspected every year. This is especially crucial if you’re burning green wood, as this is much more likely to produce creosote from cooler stack temps. Als0, of course, the btu’s you get from a pound of green vs a pound of seasoned wood is much lower; more of your energy goes to turning water to steam before the wood fibers can ignite.

  3. Fred, my husband and I empathize. Though we still have plenty of deadfall in our woods (love that locust!), getting it up the hill was considerably harder this year, mostly due to the fact that BOTH our stalwart children are now in college. I’m quite certain they didn’t miss being here for our fun-filled wood hauling weekends, but we certainly missed their sturdy young legs, arms, and backs!

  4. Ninety percent of our land is “mountain land” and in many places, rocky to boot. We cut it up the slope, end-over-end it down into the creek, then against gravity back up out of the creek, through the trees to the truck, unload, cut, stack, carry in the house and load the stove. It is, as I said in SRH, not the path of least resistance. However, it sure feels good heating the house after heating the body in the gathering of a winterss-worth of wood.

  5. Oh yes! I do understand everyone’s feeling on this one. There’s nothing like wood heat, and the workout you get by preparing for it.

    Many a morning, I’ve backed my butt up to a wood stove and felt that wonderful warm glow, like no other heat. And the gratitude for that big pile of heat, stacked outside the door.

  6. My grown daughter up in northern Maine just got her delivered wood down into the cellar in time for an expected 10-20 inch heavy snowfall the next few days.

    I am SO glad I retired to Rocky Mount and a thermostat after 19 years of hauling, limbing, splitting and stacking wood, then bringing it into the basement to the woodstove in minus 40 degree actual temperatures. There are some things I do not miss about Maine!

  7. As someone so disconnected to my landscape, by nature of the city and legal code, I’m slightly jealous of your backbreaking experience!

    That photo is quite lovely too.