Wood for the Winter

I spent most of Sunday morning splitting up a white oak for winter firewood.

White oaks are native to our bioregion and they can grow huge and old. The primeval piedmont forests were full of them, and even though the old forests are now gone we still see big ones at the edges of old fields or in small out-of-the-way stands on somebody’s protected property.

A white oak in the piedmont could be over 200 years old. Its limbs could have shaded the last Cherokee hunting parties or the first Scots-Irish farmers who came down the Great Wagon Road.

The tree I split wasn’t old like that. By my ring count, it was about 55 years old, so it had likely been an acorn planted, like me, in the early 1950s. Some industrious post-war squirrel had probably hid it away in a good mast year, but there’s no way to tell that for sure.

Fifty-five is getting old for a human, but this white oak was still an adolescent in the lifecycle of oaks. When the winter storm uprooted it and brought its photosynthesis to a halt it could have had another century and a half to go, but storms are what often does them in, so this one was no surprise.

The tree had grown all those years mostly unnoticed in the low finger of the floodplain cut off by Mustang Drive. I didn’t see it fall, but the next day driving out to school I noticed a silver horizontal line in stark contrast to the other vertical ones etching the winter neighborhood woods. I knew who owned the land and called and got permission to cut up and haul out the good dry wood.

In late summer my friend Fred brought his big chainsaw over and cut the tree into rounds. While Fred sawed I noted how the tree had fallen southeast, and so speculated that the breeze that did it in likely came from the southwest, a good direction for storms.

In the two months since Fred cut the tree up I’ve rolled the rounds out of the woods and hauled them in my pickup up the hill to our side yard. I know it would have been less trouble to get a cord of wood delivered, but there wouldn’t have been half as much fun or speculation or fellowship.

I made a woodpile with the rounds, and a pact with myself to get them split before Thanksgiving. Splitting wood has an art to it. You have to look for the cracks where the round has dried. That’s where it’s weak. The grain guides you, and the maul slides down and through without much effort.

I’m not very good at it anymore, and sometimes the heavy splitting maul bounces on a round and the wood does not yield. I cheat and throw that one aside, hoping the next is easier.

Now I’m done with splitting. I’ve stacked the quartered rounds on the porch and feel good about my work. We don’t heat the whole house with wood like I did years ago, but we burn it in the fireplace through the winter to take the chill off the living room. If I had to heat the house I’m sure I’d cave in and let a machine decrease my labor, but now all I have to do is split enough to keep us in weekend fires through the winter.

Wood puts me in a reflective literary mood. Oil, kerosene, and natural gas just don’t do that, though the story of how they got to be fuel is probably just as interesting if we bothered to tell it.

The old story is that wood warms us three times-in the cutting, splitting, and burning. I shared the first warmth with Fred, and will share the third with family and friends, but the second warmth is all my own.

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