In spite of the relatively balmy temperatures we’ve enjoyed of late and further spite of the predictions of the groundhog prognosticator of the day, it’s safe to say that there is still plenty of winter ahead of us. Skiers will rejoice and commuters will moan but such is life in the North Country. We have winter and it lasts a long time!
What I like best about winter is that I get to fire up my trusty wood stove, warming the house and my soul as no other fuel can. Certainly oil, coal, natural gas, propane and electricity are great, dependable sources of heat but the look and odor of these alternatives leaves much to be desire. I have always enjoyed the look of a full wood shed, likening it to money in the bank, and the smell of a freshly split bolt of cedar, yellow or black birch is almost intoxicating, far better than that of a gallon of oil or a bucket of coal.
Though it’s decidedly old-school to say so, I still enjoy the process of “getting wood in.” I cut my trees in spring and I’m not particularly fussy about which species I use. If it’s big enough to split and will burn I’ll cut it, for I’ve found that if it’s made of wood it will burn whether it’s the punkiest Balm of Gilead (aka poplar) or No. 1 ash. Over the decades I’ve put white cedar, alder, pine, tamarack, spruce, fir and assorted other poor-quality fire woods through my stove and, all things considered, they got the job done. Of course the softwoods don’t burn as long or as well as the choicest hardwoods but if a person is home all day and has nothing better to do but stuff the stove what difference does it make what the species or quality of wood he burns?
I let my firewood lay on the ground for a week or two with the leaves and limbs still on, and then spend a long weekend cutting and trimming away all the parts and pieces I don’t intend to burn. I make brush piles for the critters out of the smaller limbs and strip away the outer bark of the birches for use as fire starters (there are none better), and then, on a cool day when the spirit moves, I’ll cut the tree-lengths into 16-inch blocks, which are just the size for feeding my stove without have to wrestle with over-sized chunks that don’t fit well and therefore disrupt the burning process. Filling a stove with wood that’s too long is a real battle and the resulting fire won’t last very long. It’s much better to cut the wood to fit your particular stove and to make sure that every single piece is cut to size. You’ll get more heat with a lot less trouble!
Come late summer I begin splitting and stacking my wood, a load or two per day, until it’s all under cover. “A load” amounts to a trailer load, which in my case is about one-half cord. Six cords will last more than a winter with some left over to begin the next heating season, so the math works well for me. By the time I’m sick of splitting and stacking firewood the job is done.
To hasten the drying process I open all the doors and windows in the wood shed, plug in an old fan to help move the moist air out of the shed and then forget about firewood till September. By then the wood is dry, the fan is turned off and I’m nearly ready for winter.
Much is made of the best way to kindle and start a fire and to each his own in that regard. I simply gather the strips and chips, bark and stick left over from the splitting process, toss them into a barrel to dry and use them as necessary to get a fire going. Most often I’ll simply use last night’s coals to get today’s fire going, but there are days (such as lately) when I don’t have a fire all day and the stove goes out. I just grab a handful of splitting duff, throw a match on it and add wood as required.
It’s been said that one cord of “prime” hardwood (beech, apple, oak, maple, ash or birch) is equal to 250 gallons of fuel oil. I burn about one cord of wood per month in a cold winter, somewhat less during periods of thaw, so I suppose I’m saving money as far as that goes.
My reasons for heating with wood have less to do with thrift than with ambience. I like the look of wood when the stacking is done, the heft of it and the way it nestles into my stove when I’m ready to build a fire. The attraction of fire is as old as human kind and the combination of flickering flames and radiant heat makes the coziest of companions on a bitter winter’s night. I may read, write or simply sit and gaze at the orange glow behind the stove’s glass doors. The snap and crackle of burning wood coupled with the creaks and groans of the cast iron are all the company I need most nights, and I find it far more soothing than anything I’ll find on TV after dark.
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac from one cord of firewood one could make 7,500,000 toothpicks, 460,000 personal checks, 30 Boston rockers or 12 dining room tables, but I don’t need any of that stuff. Burning wood is still the fastest, most effective source of heat be it a room, a home or a cold soul in winter. We in the North Country are fortunate that we don’t need to huddle over a grate or pile on the blankets in order to feel warm in winter. With my wood stove at full throttle, a cup of hot tea in hand, all is right with the world. Winter stays outside where it belongs!