I’ll thank our Stone Age ancestors, Homo erectus, for taming fire to warm their caves—with wood!
It’s now 1.4 million Septembers later, here in the Upper Delaware River Valley where winter’s sure and soon to come, so I spent the last two days getting my firewood boxed and stacked (I’ll explain “boxed” in a moment.)
Why I heat my home with firewood: I relish its ambience—outdoors, the scent from the chimney; indoors, the coziness of its glow through the woodstove’s front window. The quiet and serenity of it.
An occasional pop and crackle, but none of that rumble of furnace machinery, coming on, going off, to the commands of its schizophrenic thermostat. No background din from air forced to “whoosh” through HVAC ducts.
It’s the traditional hearth, and it feels close to nature, befitting this house in the country. Yours, too. You’ll see.
Wood’s renewable. It’s solar! Trees capture the sun’s rays in their leaves, store the energy in their wood—photosynthesis at work. Wood releases the stored solar energy when it burns. New trees are always re-seeding. Mother Nature does it constantly. We humans help, too. If we work together, we can ensure plenty of trees.
Wood’s cheaper. It really does “grow on trees.” Sometimes a tree’s brought down by wind or snow, literally a “windfall.” Cut, split, stacked, burned—for free!
Most firewood is purchased, though. I bought some lately for $180 per cord. Technically that’s 128 cubic feet of wood; visually, a small dump truck load. Two or three cords, together with those windfalls, will last the season. Compare that to your heating oil bill.
It’s reliable and helps you be more self-sufficient. Firewood heat needs no electricity. A large pot of water on top of a woodstove replenishes the dry winter air, no humidifier needed. Power outages? This home sweet home stays warm. The top of the woodstove will even boil water for coffee and heat up dinner (which will be by candlelight that night). Even if I must write these memoirs by pen, by candlelight, I won’t be in the cold.
The “hearth of the matter” is the woodstove. The soapstone stoves are my favorites. Soapstone’s a naturally occurring rock, soft, easy to quarry into slabs and bricks. It has interesting patterns and polishes up pretty, too. Soapstone stands out for its remarkable ability to retain heat and release it slowly, over hours, even overnight. Fill a soapstone stove with well-seasoned firewood before bed, and it—and the house, too—will still be warm in the morning, coals still glowing, easy to fire up for another day; just add some kindling and logs.
Today’s woodstoves have advanced far beyond their oil-drum ancestors, let alone Ben Franklin’s pot-belly. They’re actually the fruit of considerable engineering that’s made them efficient and planet-friendly. They recirculate smoke that would once just go up the chimney, and send it back into the firebox, to burn it more completely. That reduces emissions down to EPA-permissible levels.
What about CO2? A tree has the same amount of carbon, whether it’s cut and split for firewood or it falls dead in the woods. Whether that carbon is released as carbon dioxide by burning the wood, or by the respiration of fungi and microbes decomposing it, the total quantity is the same. Burning firewood is carbon neutral, at least on this small scale. (Obviously, we’re not clear-cutting old growth forests or clearing the Amazon to heat this old house.)
What kind of wood? Seasoned. Above all. It burns vigorously and doesn’t smoke. I like it weathered gray, with the bark fallen off. It takes at least six months to get that way, exposed to a hot dry summer. Buy it in the spring. I try to have enough left over from last year to get through this December. By then, the newer wood will be ready.
What about species? It you can get it, wood from apple trees has about the highest heat content. Locust burns great, too, slow and hot. It holds its shape in the fire, glowing red almost like coal. After those—and this depends mainly on what’s locally growing—I prefer hardwoods (maples, hickory) over softwoods (birch, aspens). No pine or spruces: they burn too fast and leave creosote in your chimney. Some small twigs make good kindling, though.
Boxing and stacking. Here’s the hardest part. Firewood is undeniably bulky. It needs to be stacked loosely so air can circulate around it. Keep it off the wet ground. “Let the mouse scamper through, but not the cat chasing it,” the old-timers said.
But don’t store it indoors… never can be sure what might hatch out at room temperatures.
My rule is “stack only once.” I dread stacking my wood neatly in one place, only to break it up, move it, stack it again. How you stack only once depends on the equipment and space you have around your house. Some folks can build the whole season’s stack just a few steps from their door. That’s ideal. But I can’t.
My solution: containerize. From some used pallets, and whatever scrap boards I have around, I build some three-sided boxes, open on one side and the top. Stack the wood in. Forklift it to the front door of the house, a half-cord at a time, which lasts three or four weeks until December, then two or three weeks until spring. If you don’t have a forklift handy, a trailer can also work, hitched to your pickup or SUV. Just park it where you can reach it in the snow.
Days are shorter. Shadows longer. Fallen leaves scent the air. Our wood is boxed and stacked and ready.
Ron Litchman is a copywriter. He says he creates PERSUA+sive and audaCIOUS ads, marketing, and content. Learn more at www.persuacious.com.
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