A neighbour once said, “A delivery of firewood is thrice enjoyed: Once, when the wood is delivered, next, when the wood is stacked and put away, and finally, when it is burned.
To this, I would add a fourth: chopping. As required. I shall explain.
There is no natural gas on Pender Island, and few people bother with propane, except to run their stoves. So no central heating systems warm our homes. Wood stoves do. Firewood is a big part of our lives, here.
This adds a layer of work – and pleasure – into heating the house. You stack a cord of wood, or two or three, then maintain a supply near the house to save yourself a trek up the driveway in the cold or rain, to bring wood in when needed.
More Wood, More Work
When firewood is delivered, it is generally ready for the fireplace or wood stove, chopped to size. If you want kindling to help start the fire, well, that’s extra work.
Starting the fire in the most efficient way is in the realm of opinion or tradition … or superstition. This past year, I’ve been using the top down method: I place a layer of logs in the bottom of a cold stove, then a layer of kindling. Lastly, I layer a small amount of newspaper or pine cones on top of all that. The top tinder is ignited and the fire starts modestly, but soon begins to eat its way down. Gas is given off as the logs heat up, but there is already flame on the top to ignite it. Before long you have a great fire going with a minimum of smoke.
When Mildrith came into our lives, it meant more wood and more work. More stacking, more chopping and more transporting wood to the oven shelter.
Chopped to Size
The prevailing wisdom among wood-fired oven users is that logs are not the most efficient size to use. The fuel needs to be smaller. I chop firewood to the diameter of a human wrist. The wood burns brighter, hotter, faster, bumping up the surface temperature of the hearth and walls. Lots of this wood thrown on the fire builds a reservoir of heat that will bake three to four loads of bread on one firing. Equals a happy baker!
So firewood destined for Mildrith needs to be chopped first. It’s repetitive. If I’m not in the right frame of mind, it can be boring. But it’s amazing how the time flies by, setting a log on the chopping block, finding the right place to split it, bringing the axe down. The wood cracks, the chips fly and soon enough you might step back and realize you’ve chopped a hell of a lot of wood..
There is the scent of wood. The pungence of fir sap. It’s sharp at first, because you’re so close to it, but it fills the air around you as the wood splits open and you bend over to pick up the next piece. There are fir trees everywhere on Pender, and you realize you smell it every day when you step outside. You’re closer to wood, the more you chop.
Lo and Behold! A Stack of Wood!
I’m the sanguine type, who forgets my worldly concerns when I’m working with the axe. I focus on the task at hand. Trance-like, I carry logs from the stack, chop, pick up the pieces, repeat. Before long, there is enough firewood for two or three wheelbarrows that can be taken down to Mildrith and stacked neatly beside her. Mildrith is provided for. The fruits of my labour lay before me. I can take off my gloves. My back is a little stiff, there are splinters in my fingers, but there is a deep satisfaction when I behold enough wood for many firings of the oven.
A recent favourite book, Norwegian Wood ‒ Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Norwegian Way by Lars Mytting, is a paean to the wood-fired world and all the tasks and pleasures it entails. In it, I discovered these lines from the great Norwegian poet, Hans Bøli:
The scent of fresh wood
is among the last things you will forget when the veil falls.
The scent of fresh white wood
in the spring sap time:
as though life itself walked by you,
with dew in its hair.
That sweet and naked smell
kneeling woman-soft and blond
in the silence inside you,
using your bones for
a willow flute.
With the hard frost beneath your tongue
you look for fire to light a word,
and know, mild as southern wind in the mind,
there is still one thing in the world
you can trust.Hans Børli