This time of year, pickup trucks troll the streets, a jumble of logs in their beds. The drivers are hearty and congenial, hailing you as you rake the last (ha!) of the leaves. You need any wood? … You know of anybody who needs any wood? … You’re sure don’t need any wood? Gonna be cold this winter.
While fewer people burn wood, we still recognize the impulse to gird ourselves for the season ahead. That's one reason we look upon a well-stacked woodpile with, as Henry David Thoreau observed, "a sort of affection.”
“People in northern climes take their wood very seriously,” said Will Weaver, an author who lives near Bemidji, Minn., where the temp on any given night in January is 4-below zero. “The serious part is keeping your house warm over winter, which was always done by wood.
“But beyond that nowadays, the matter of woodmaking, as we’ll call it, merged with other issues of life. You know there's not much about life we can control, but we can control our woodpile.”
As Weaver wrote for the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine a few years ago: “There is a need in all of us to work, to gather, to store up, though less of a need in some people than in others, my father would have said. He once remarked, ‘You can tell a lot about people by their firewood piles.’ ”
Last winter, a kerfuffle erupted in Norway when a TV program about firewood panned across some woodpiles. Viewers were aghast, half griping that some logs were stacked with the bark facing up, while the other half were incredulous that some were stacked bark down.
The 12-hour show, based on Lars Mytting’s bestselling book “Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood — and the Soul of Wood-Burning,” featured four hours about chopping and stacking techniques, then eight hours of a live shot of a burning fire. Rapt viewers — about half of Norwegian households have fireplaces or wood stoves — watched as hands occasionally replenished the fire, cooked sausages over the flames, even roasted marshmallows.
(Norwegians, for the record, are big fans of what’s known as “slow TV.” Other hits: a seven-hour trip from Oslo to Bergen viewed from a camera anchored to a train, and an 18-hour live-stream of salmon swimming upriver.)
But we were talking about woodpiles.
The experts at Mother Earth News urge stackers to "build in as much air as you can, using irregularities and odd-shaped logs to create cross-stack channels for drying air." To keep a pile from toppling, build it against a stable object such as a tree or a fence post. "At free ends, build stable, square log cribs by alternating courses of north-south logs with east-west" — like setting up to play Jenga.
The Earthers, for the record, are bark side uppers.
Weaver sees strength in both approaches. He places the bottom row of firewood bark down to keep the wood off the ground, then places the top layer bark up, “which makes a little roof for the pile,” he said. In between, he stacks the split logs so the prevailing winds and sun can drive moisture from the wood, which can take months.
“You should also be a year ahead, so the wood I’ll be burning this fall was put up last fall to dry,” he said. “The true compulsives work two years ahead.”
Weaver favors a mix of oak, birch pine and aspen. “I use the oak in the deep cold,” he explained. “Pine burns hotter, which has its own application. True connoisseur that I am [a chuckle is heard here], I use a little bit of balsam over the holidays because it has a nice pop to it. It crackles.”
Ancient cure for modern life
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has an extensive list of resources for buying, handling and storing wood at http://bit.ly/17Hy4Bm.
Weaver’s own best tip involves the optimum temperature for splitting logs: between zero and 10-below. “The wood breaks apart like glass.”
Practicalities aside, Weaver believes that creating a woodpile can be therapeutic, mentally and physically.
“For me, it’s a way of creating order in the tug and pull of modern life,” he said. The felling, hauling, splitting and stacking are “very much a kind of Zen thing. I do a good deal of my writing inside my head when splitting wood.”
No less an authority than the Norway Post noted what we'll call psycho/physical benefits, suggesting that the repetitiveness of splitting and stacking allows a person to “imagine freely, or not think at all. Perhaps more important, it provides an opportunity to hit hard! The latter can save both marriages and bad peers.”
In short, a woodpile has value beyond its BTUs.
Weaver mused about how each stick of timber must be handled, eyeballed, stacked and nudged into a wooden rampart that will last a year or more. That the labor ends with an honest splinters-and-all woodpile before your eyes is immensely satisfying.
“So many of our rewards are sort of invisible ones,” Weaver said. “We keep our money in the bank, but we keep our wood in the woodpile where we can see it.”