One Floyd Countian’s Woodlot in Life Turns Out to Be Enough

This is a revision and elaboration of a post from a week or so back. It appears in today’s Floyd Press column, and I’m trying to remember to include at least some of those on the blog as a way of archiving where I can retrieve them down the road a year or three. So indulge me, this is long for the average blog reader’s attention span, I know that.

Half-jokingly I often say that the true measure of a man can be taken from the size, orderliness and contents of his woodpile.

If that is indeed the case, then I have in the past couple of years devolved to a brutish and slovenly derelict of our species. You see, I’ve taken to burning sissy wood–more on the order of glorified kindling than real wood with a manly heft to it.

Of course I’m in as much need as ever for the heat that comes from the wood I cut–and my wife, it seems, is even more in need of BTUs per hour with each passing winter day. But the putting by of four cords that we burn over six months of every year becomes more of a chore faced with a certain dread than the pleasure it used to be before I woke up with 60 year old joints and muscles. woodsmen

The job can still be done, mind you, and I still have the desire to do it. What I lack on our billy-goat mountain land is the access without Herculean effort and risk to cut, split and tote the standing “body wood” of a manly woodpile from across the creek or up or down the contours, forest pitched as it is on the steep and rocky slopes.

My reluctance comes from this lay of the land, geographic and orthopedic, coupled with a new unwillingness to vie for the “Darwin Award” I almost won posthumously last year with a near miss from a felled tree whose path of fall I severely misjudged.

So what I have found is that we can still bring home truckloads of wood from the few acres we have access to along Nameless Creek but we can’t make it happen from what windfall and decay offer us. We’ll have to cut live and standing shrubbery–a term I’ll use because honestly, the object of our chain saw this year could hardly be called “timber.”

And herein is my enthusiasm and rationale for a sissy woodpile: a pound of wood is a pound of wood. As I understand it, the BTU capacity of the different wood species comes more from their relative density than from any inherent differences of energy storage in the wood itself. It takes twice the poplar, say, to produce x units of heat because it is half as dense as something like oak. But wood burns at a given rate of heat yield, species compared pound for pound and at the same moisture level,

You will find all kinds of hardwood species rated for BTU’s on a by-the-cord basis: oak and hickory, locust and cherry. But you will not find our wood du jour that makes up the stacks for next winter: spicebush and witch hazel.

Both are considered shrubs or small trees–spicebush, growing wrist-sized trunks of 8 to 15 feet and witch hazel, smooth calf-sized trunks of equal length. They grow in abundance along the creek bank, splaying toward the horizontal as their multiple trunks gain size in the soft sandy soil. They are safe to drop, easy to carry and both about as dense in my hands as hickory.

This new way of doing things has got me to thinking. The old timers say that the best kind of wood to burn is the kind of wood you have at hand. There’s a certain kind of wisdom in this that reaches beyond the choices we’ve made in the woodlot.

Soon, perhaps this old-fashioned living-within-one’s-means way of thinking about resources will be commonplace and post-modern progressive: meeting our needs from what we have so that we have what we need. It’s just common sense in the absence of cheap oil.

The best kind of (fill in the blank: salad greens and wooden bowl, cool drink, knitting yarn) is what we have at hand locally and can get with relative efficiency, the least possible depletion or risk to the source that provides it, and a thing that can be produced in such a way that it keeps on giving for the long term to those who consume it.

So I’m really not so apologetic for my wimpy woodpile. Let’s just say that I have a new vision for what’s enough and ways to appreciate and use what I already have. Along with millions of others in this Post Peak world, I’m exploring options to sustain my own demand for natural resources–even though my grip is not what it once was–out of what lies within my local grasp.

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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. That picture is a hoot. It speaks volumes….it is so good it could be award winning. I think it’s the overalls that make it so darned cute. It may be time to buy a load or two of wood….the manly kind….and still gather plenty of the wimpy kind. Bless your hearts. This is the first year in over 30 that I have moved to a house without wood heat. I used to call loading the woodstove, “feeding the dragon”. On a morning like this….5 degrees, the dragon must be very hungry.

  2. Note in this picture also the sum total of our wood harvesting tools at that time: a bow saw and an axe. (Not pictured: a Datsun Hatchback.) The spouse and I understood push-pull in those days, have since learned push-push but still sitting by the same fire, nevertheless, 40 years later.

  3. i lived long ago in a moonshiners cabin on the side of Old Rag and the son cut cords of green poplar,big heavy logs ,not split. That stove would burn red ,but i was warm.