Thursday, December 17, 2009


I knew right from the start this would be a good day. (When it comes to certain rituals, I believe in karma.) As I carefully scraped the ashes of last night’s fire through the grates for transfer to the waiting scuttle, there hidden in and protected by an insulating layer of gray wood ash were two or three still-living coals, glowing red with promise; the remnants of a pinyon knot, imbued at its core with natural resins bestowed by a long-ago marriage of sun and sapling. Open the draft, ply with a feathery wreath of cedar bark and voila ! We have flames, ready to be cajoled with a “teepee” of hand-split cedar withes into the day’s birthing fire. And without having to resort to the calumny of paper or match !
For the dedicated wood-burner, there is something particularly and deeply satisfying about building that first-of-the day fire. No matter the dimension or design of the hearth, there is something undeniably primal and elegantly elemental in an act which connects us with generations of fire-makers stretching back to humankind’s very roots.
It is especially satisfying when outside, gray storm clouds are reaching earthwards, the west wind is bringing showers of rain and sleet on its chill breath, and warmth produced by human hands begins to fill our log home’s frosty interior. The progressive placement of slender pieces of dry white pine and hand-split billets of red cedar which have been curing for two years under a home-made outdoor shelter are each a steppingstone in the ritual. The Dutch West’s double layers of cast iron begin to tick and ting as they expand, joining the song the chimney draft and crackling wood are singing.
I can’t help but notice that among the cradles of fire wood toted from barn to hearth individual pieces bring their own sense of history and personality with them: there is that knot-filled twisted juncture of cedar burl I almost gave up on splitting last August; here is the single silver-white length of cottonwood salvaged from a lightning-struck branch which had to be cleared from the trail along the river bank after a springtime storm, and mixed in are those misshapen, impossible-to-stack odds and ends purposely set aside, or thrown on the top of a finished stack and just begging to be gotten rid of on a bed of hot coals. The symmetry of an artfully constructed section of a near-perfect corner or end-stack reminds me of a weekend when a visiting grandson took the time his grandpa never would have to show his architectural skills. Here and there, as I work my way through the wood pile I will happen upon a tiny stack of still-green meadow grass, where a far-sighted deer mouse built winter quarters, and wonder if its inhabitants escaped the notice of a California king snake I knew hunted nearby.
As I travel the backroads of the New England I love, and where my own association with wood-gathering and wood-burning was first given life, I am always on the lookout for the inevitable evidence that cold-weather providence is still alive and well. I see wood stacks that are straight-and-true, short or long, sometimes circular or even whimsical in shape and design; out in the open, or under carefully-crafted shelter. These stacks, of course, are made up of white birch, some ash, and a lot of long-burning, BTU-rich maple – the true wood-burner’s ”fillet mignon” of the hearth. Sometimes I stop to admire or even photograph what most travelers would pass by with hardly a glance. And . . if I think no one is watching, I will even saunter over to the stack, and allow my nostrils to inhale deeply of an amalgam of forest perfume which has the power to open the memory vaults of my mind to the magic of a thousand morning fires.
Each Fall as we take temporary possession of a primitive cabin overlooking the Atlantic in coastal Maine, I pray for the first night of frosty weather, or better yet, an actual “Nor’easter” , so that I can feed split chunks of gathered and carefully-husbanded maple into the waiting fireplace.
Just outside my back door here in southern Utah, I keep a chopping block and splitting axe – as I have wherever I have lived, down through the years - so that I have to walk by them every day. They, and what they stand for remind me of who I am, and of a legacy of self reliance which helps to define me.
I was right this morning. This has been a very good day. Day number 27,950.

A neat home-built shelter houses a supply of split hardwood at historic “Furnace Brook Farm” in Chittenden, Vermont.
For many New England farm families, firewood gathering is a never-ending, year-round job.

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