The New Physics of Firewood
While the implications of the engineering term “efficiency” make my skin crawl in some settings, in our private economy here on Goose Creek and at this chapter of our lives, producing the greatest product for the least input of effort is something we must think about more and more. This grudging homage to efficiency most especially has to do this time of year with what it will take to stay warm this winter and those to come.
We first started heating with wood in the mid-seventies. On moving from balmy ‘bama to Virginia, we couldn’t keep the kids warm with oil heat, even at 17 cents a gallon. A Fisher Momma Bear came into our home.
Ann and I thought nothing then of bucking up a 10-inch standing-dead oak with a bow saw and axe. The fact that we’d have to haul each piece up from a rocky ravine 300 yards from the hatchback barely entered our minds. Effort was half the fun; the energy in the stacked cordwood couldn’t touch the energy expended in its cutting and gathering.
But with all that, a good bit of that hard-earned wood heat went back into the neighborhood through the single pane window glass and un-insulated ceiling of our drafty old rambler on Withers Road in Wytheville. We’d just cut more.
That was then, this is now, and as B. B. King sings, the thrill is gone. While the comfort of wood heat lives on, those early macho-romantic notions about heating with wood cut by my own hands are giving way to more practical considerations.
Each outing these cold days is less an opportunity to exert manly force over nature and more a lesson in the bizarre New Physics of our golden years of wood-gathering: the ground gets further from our hands. The same slopes grow steeper; and a pound of wood exerts more gravitational pull toward the center of the planet than it did just the year before.
So I am thankful for what usable wood I’ve been able to scrounge from right around the house, left behind by windfall and the efforts of others. AEP’s helicopter and the Asplundh fellas left us limbs and small trunks removed from the power line right of way-enough for a couple of truckloads toward the winter of ’08.
We are more and more into those limbs-arm and leg-sized pieces-and less into body-wood; dropping from my job description: the heavy lifting. And of course, the smaller rounds don’t require splitting, saving one step in the process from field to fire. A cord of wood that heats me only once is sounding better and better.
Even so, there will inevitably be some fallen and standing-dead resources that are bigger in girth than my splitting threshold of 8 inches. I can hardly leave these solid trunks to become a slow meal for the organisms of decay. With careful attention to the wood-chopping ergonomics befitting a late fifty-something physical therapist, I still split a fair share each winter using the little-known method that has saved my shins, back and rotator cuff to burn wood yet another year.
Take two old tires. Wrap some wire or stout nylon twine around them in several places to keep them one atop the other. Put a single big round or several smaller rounds into the well created by the tires. You’ll soon discover the efficiency and wisdom of this method.
The split wood stays in the ring and does not leave manly scars on your shins. The split wood stays standing, reducing the distance that the sore back and legs must lower the hands to lift and stack the wood. The ring helps reduce the arc that the shoulders must follow to complete the split, and the rubber of the tires’ rebound absorbs some of the blow’s impact at the end.
There is a creeping ambivalence in our relationship each year with the chainsaw, splitting maul and black plastic in the wind. Staying warm some future winter may be a matter of turning up a dial. Perhaps the heat pump cometh, but not today, not this year when we have enough in the stacks to see us through ’til April. We have our health, mostly, and we have Advil. And there will likely be windfalls yet to come.