A. V. Walters


Like many out here in West County, we burn wood to stay warm. Within legal limits, we try to meet our heating needs with a small wood stove and a sense of grit. It makes for a different rhythm of the day; first thing on waking, even before coffee, is seeing to the fire. Ours is a small stove, so, especially on a very cold night, the fire often doesn’t make it to morning. I’m the early riser around here, so I’m the one who breaks the still of the morning with fetching wood and lighting the stove. If lucky, I start the day with embers; it’s just a question of feeding a hot stove and nursing it into flames. If I sleep in, or if the night was particularly chilly, I can count on having to do a cold start—shoveling out the ashes and starting-up with a little paper, kindling, etc.

We’re wood scrounges. I watch craigslist and when a tree falls in a storm, or somebody is felling one, I try to be quick on the draw. This past fall we scored two walnut trees for a song. Granted it was several weekends, cutting them into manageable sized chunks and hauling them back to the farm for splitting.  It came in at just over two full cords. Next winter I’ll be curious to see how the walnut burns. (We’re hoping the two cords will carry us through most, if not all, the season.) This year we’re mostly burning almond and apple. The almond is incredible firewood. It burns hot and long, with lovely flames tinged with blue. And it smells good, with minimal ash. Almond is the exception to the scrounge rule—it’s so good I pay top dollar for it. Then I mix it with whatever I’ve got available. The apple smells good, too. But it burns fast with little in the way of lasting embers and leaves a ton of fluffy ashes. It was cheap though—fifty bucks for a truckload when we do all the cutting and loading ourselves.

I grew up in a wood-burning family. Back east the wood of choice is oak—or hornbeam, if you can find it. So I’m familiar with waking up to the slightly acrid bite of oak in the air. When I first came to the farm I scrounged for anything I could pick up free after a storm. There was a lot of bay, manzanita and oak. The varieties of oak we here in sunny California are not all as good as the ones back home. Some has a low BTU value—about the same as apple—better than pine, but not the good, all night burn I remember as a kid. But the smell is still the same—a distinctive edge to the smoke and the ash. You can tell when you walk into the house that there is oak in the woodstove. For that weirdly nostalgic smell, I try to pick the harder, longer burning oak. After all, if you must endure its oakyness, you should get the BTUs of good oak. But in the wet of a rainstorm (when trees fall they’re often offered free to anyone with a chainsaw who’ll haul them away,) I can’t tell what kind of oak is what—and free does not give one the opportunity to be picky. So oak it was, until somebody offered me a sample of almond.

Hot, sweet, long-burning almond. Renewable too, because almond growers in the Central Valley are always cycling out old trees to make way for new. I quickly became an almond snob. Then last fall we had the opportunity to pick up apple, cheap. Apple doesn’t have the heating value of almond (or a good oak) but it starts easy and burns hot. Mixed with almond, it’s a perfect fire. Right now I’m burning exactly that mix, with some oak late at night (when we keep the stove closed up and damped down.) My sister back home laughs. They stick with what grows local there, mostly oak, some maple and hornbeam. To hear me extol the virtues of fruitwood and nut-woods, well, she thinks it’s like Californians and their wine. You know, a little grassy with a hint of blackberry and a smooth finish. She and her husband are simultaneously intrigued and appalled that next season I’ll be burning walnut!

Walnut! That’s for furniture! I felt funny about it, too but by the time we arrived on the scene the tree-fellers had already cut it into 12 to 24 inch rounds, so my guilt was assuaged. At least I didn’t cut it that way. Cutting and hauling the walnut was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. (A good test for my new partner, who was game all the way.) He split most of it, too. (A neighbor joked that when you split your own wood, by hand, it warms you twice.) In true Michigan fashion, we were cutting wood for next year—to allow ample seasoning time. But here on the farm they don’t always plan out that far. Our growing woodpile became the talk of the farm. Finally, Elmer asked whether there was something about the upcoming winter that I knew, that maybe I should tell him. The relief was clear on his face when I said that much of it was for next year. It’s turned out to be a long and particularly cold winter here. And we were ready with our almond and apple. Even after months of nights in the 20s and 30s (I hope they’re not laughing back home—but that’s really cold for here) it looks as though we’ll just make it through—without having to dip into the walnut. (Though we have burned a few of the smaller scraps, mostly just to see how it performs. But you’ll have to wait until next year for that report.)

I guess my family is right. We’ve become wood snobs. We hew to the rituals and rhythms of ‘making wood’ but we’ve embellished it with a particularly Californian aesthetic, not just the heat, but the bouquet, the color of the flame and quality of ash. Okay, maybe they have something on us there. Burn appétit!