Archives for posts with tag: wood burning

Waiting on Color

A.V. Walters

Color is late this year. Not just here, I’m hearing it everywhere. Back home, where normally it would be finishing up by now, most of the trees are still green. Here we’re a couple of weeks behind–and we’re only seeing the occasional branch, or isolated tree, that has bolted into spectacular. I keep telling myself I’ll blog when I can post great color shots. And then I wait.

It’s not like the weather hasn’t changed. It’s autumn here. Night time temps are dropping into the 40s. I have to harvest the last of my basil and tomatoes, before the first hard frost. I’m staining the cabin–and some days it’s too chilly to stain. Though staining is akin to paint–and should be an improvement–Rick and I have grown attached to the look of cedar logs. They must be stained, to protect from rot and UV damage. Still, we like the natural look and cringe that the work I’m doing makes the cabin look like Lincoln Logs. I’m sure I’ll get enough warm days to get the first coat on–the cooler days I use for prep. Rainy days, I work on the computer. Rick is busy putting in the septic. Those cool power tools, the Kubota and the backhoe, are seeing good use. We’ll get it in, and inspected, just in time for the weather to really turn.

Some folks plan their vacations around color. It’s a risky venture–trying to guess when nature will accommodate. Is it a failure if you head off to the boonies–and have only green to reward you? I suppose an early winter would be worse–or a dry year with only shriveled, brown leaves. Our neck of the woods has recently been voted the best color-drive in the country. I don’t know how such things are judged. (I’ll bet folks back in the Keweenaw, or at the Porcupine Mountains, will think the jig is rigged.) I only know that it will extend our tourist season–which can’t be all bad for the local economy. The wine-tasting vineyards and orchard stands will be happy.

In the meantime, we keep working. It’s a year late, but we have our winter-defendable shell in place. The doors and windows went in last week. Once we get the chimney in, we’ll actually be able to heat it, making for a cozy place to work until it’s ready for us to move in. All things in due time. Next time, color shots!

A Storm’s A-Brewin’

A.V. Walters


There’s a storm on its way, so I woke at first light, for chores. I wanted to wash and line-dry three loads before the rains came. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. There’s a fierce wind—the one that will bring the storm, and the laundry is hanging horizontal. I don’t think they even make a clothes dryer that works as fast as this. A wind this strong actually shakes out the lint, and leaves even line-dried clothes as soft as a machine-tumbled load. As soon as my basket was empty, even while I was still wrestling to pin the last item, off it went, rolling in the wind. Last year’s standing corn plants, in the field next to our clothesline, make quite a racket, rustling in a wind like that.

There it goes in the wind!

There it goes in the wind!

I’m glad for the weather, though. A good wind can blow out the cobwebs, literally and figuratively. Admittedly, I’ve been in a funk. We’ve been hiking in the woods quite a bit of late, and doing some unexpected detective work. You see, we’ve been finding cut logs and stumps. Someone has been cutting wood on our property. This breaks all the rules.

In the world of making wood, there is no need to cut live trees for firewood. With weather and wind and blights, there’s always plenty of dead wood (or “deadfall”) to forage. Gathering deadfall cleans up the forest—and gives you a head start on seasoning the wood, for burning. Cutting live trees is reserved for timber cutting, either as a harvest, or to thin the forest. We did a “thinning” harvest 11 years ago. Now, with the emerald ash borer damage, we have no further need to thin the forest.

This property has been without stewards for a couple decades. Vacant land is often considered ‘fair game’ in rural areas—at least for gathering. Last Spring we politely disinvited some locals from morel mushroom hunting on our hills. There’s a longer story there, but basically, they were put out that we’d returned to the land—a gathering zone that they’d considered theirs, for decades. I do understand; I have my own secret berry patches in the woods where I grew up. I don’t own them, but I am proprietary about not revealing my sources. Had these ‘locals’ not been outright abusive in years past, I might have invited them to keep up their tradition.

Vacant land is also a source of deadfall gathering. I know that, in our absence, at least three neighbors had fuelled their winter heat from our slopes. It was fine. They kept trails clear and didn’t (for the most part) abuse the privilege. But, we’re here now. A few faces fell when, otherwise friendly neighbors, realized what our return meant. You see, they follow the code. One might gather from vacant land, but you don’t harvest from your neighbor’s land. Even without fences, there are boundaries.

We’d been finding cut logs for several weeks. They were pretty consistent, six to eight feet long, saw cut, top and bottom, five to six inches in diameter. An easy size to carry, and one that can be burned later, needing only to be cut to stove size, but not split. They littered our walking paths. In total, I’ve tallied (and collected) well over thirty such logs. And I’m sure I’ll find more. It seems that ‘they’ cut each year, and then the following year, when hunting season came, they’d collect the seasoned logs for burning. This annoys me, no end. We assume that these logs were left by the same “locals,” who were collecting the mushrooms last spring. They used to own the parcel behind us and had a deer-camp cabin there. It seems likely that they used our firewood to heat the cabin in deer season. As they’ve since sold the property, we figured that the wood-cutting would end, too. There’s no sense in being angry at a theft that’s past, and incomplete at that.

Lest you think that I’m just a wood miser, I’m angry mostly because of the way that this was done. With a forest rife with available deadfall, these jokers saw fit to cut living, young trees—for their convenience. Whether they wanted them for firewood, or for posts, doesn’t matter. And, they’ve cut slow growing hardwoods—maples and eastern hophornbeam. The hophornbeam is a tall, elegant tree of the understory of the forest. They have thin, shaggy-barked trunks; a hophornbeam’s trunk is rarely thicker than 9 inches. They like the shade of north-facing slopes. The thieves are stealing wood and damaging the forest. It’s like killing a generation of children. How can that gap be filled? Rick and I are already buying and planting trees from the Conservation District—an effort to fill in and diversify the forest following the Ash Borers’ losses. We expect to plant 50 to 80 trees per year and that’s just the beginning. There are right ways and wrong ways to manage a woodlot. What they have done is wrong in so many ways… in every way.

A weeping stump.

A weeping stump.

Yesterday we were out for a walk and I saw yet another stump. This one was weeping, literally. It means that it’s a recent cut. We dug about in the leaf litter, and, sure enough, found fresh chips and sawdust. The tree was cut last fall, we guess—just before the leaves fell. Now, with the spring sap running, the tree’s roots are trying to feed the treetop that has been taken. So, our problem is ongoing. I am sick about it. It was an eastern hophornbeam (also known as ironwood because it’s so hard.) They are very slow growing—they don’t even flower or make seeds for the first twenty-five years. Though I’m happy to harvest their deadfall, (because they’ll burn all night) I would never cut a living hophornbeam.

And right next to it, a deadfall tree of the exact same type.

And right next to it, a deadfall tree of the exact same type.

Rick and I don’t know what to do. We don’t want to post “No Trespassing” signs on the property. We have a number of neighbors who hike, snowshoe and ski its trails. We have no issue with respectful use. We like sharing its beauty. But, if I catch someone in the act of cutting, I will see to it that they are fully prosecuted. Michigan is a logging state, and they take timber theft seriously. When I say this, Rick raises his brow at me, wondering at my vehemence. We both hope that this is not one of our neighbors, but the chances are high that it is.

This evening, we’re waiting for the storm. It may clear my head. The whole week is expected to be unsettled—cool weather with the possibility of snow. Right now, the only rustlin’ I want to hear about, is the wind in the trees.

Sundays and Making Wood…
A.V. Walters–

indian pipes1
We’re busy building. I suppose, given how late it is in the season, we could/should just power on through and build every day. But there are other priorities in the mix. Once built, we’ll need to heat our new home. Our plan is to heat as much as possible using wood from the property. One cannot wait until the snow is thigh-high to go out for firewood. “Making wood” is what the old Finns call it, back home. Mostly, we’re cutting deadfall. There’s plenty of it these days, because those damned (but beautiful) Emerald Ash Borers keep killing the ash trees. At least the wood will still make good fires, and keep us warm in the winter.
Anyway, we decided to take one day a week to cut firewood. Sundays. It’s a lovely change of pace, and brings us deep into the forest. It’s still backbreaking labor, especially on our steep hills but there’s always something new to see. Today it was Indian Pipes.

Indian Pipes are a rare form of plant. Also called “ghost plant,” they are a luminescent white—turning to a soft pink. They have no chlorophyll, and so cannot make their own food. Instead, they tap into certain kinds of fungus, which themselves have tapped into certain trees. The fungus-tree relationship is mutually beneficial, but the Indian Pipes are parasitic—they do not give back to either the fungus or the tree. They actually flower, like a regular plant—and are food for bees, both in nectar and pollen. Because they have no “plant” color, many think that the Indian Pipes are fungal. Without chlorophyll, they don’t need sunlight and can grow even in the densest of forests. No bigger than the spread of your hand, they’re easy to miss on the forest floor. They are often found in areas with beech trees or pines. We have both.

We’ve seen several patches of them this summer. When I was a kid we used to find them in the northwoods of Keweenaw County. We picked one once, from deep in the forest, to bring to a naturalist friend for identification. She chastised my parents, because the ghost plants are so rare. That got my attention—an adult wagging her finger at other grown-ups—my parents! No picking! I took the admonishment to heart and, to this day, I treat Indian Pipes with respect. indian pipes2

The Indian Pipes were our big score of the day. Of course, the firewood, too. All of it came from trees that had already fallen. Unfortunately, when the ash trees fall, they take prisoners—crashing to the forest floor, dragging their neighbors down with them. Today we gathered mostly ironwood (hophornbeam), beech and a little maple. We’re clearing trails for future access, so the day’s haul was moderate. Next Sunday, we’ll be at it again and who knows what we’ll find.

Hearth and Home

A.V. Walters

It’s a strange underpinning to the season of renewal, an almost depressing release of the winter norms, that comes before the longer days and warmer weather can step in to ease the transition. You see, in winter we endure the long, dark days with the light and warmth of our woodstove. There is a center to our home, as we cozy up each evening in front of the fire to rehash the day, or play Scrabble, or just sit and read. When it’s warm, the fire isn’t necessary for heat, but we miss basking in the golden light of the flames. There’s an intimacy to it and a ‘place’ where we belong in the winter evenings.

The day-time temperature in our home now ranges around 64˚ (F)—that’s about what we heat it to, in the winter. Somehow though, especially if it’s gray out, it doesn’t seem quite warm enough. And we’re not sure where to sit in the evening—the living room suddenly darker, without the glow of the stove. I confess we’ve lit ‘cosmetic’ fires—small fires with just enough warmth to keep the “hearth” in “hearth and home.” The cold glow of a computer screen just isn’t the same, even if it does spell a certain increase in productivity.

Both Rick and I seem to be experiencing a similar winter withdrawal. We wonder whether this is common, or just us. The rhythms of spring and summer, gardening, long evenings outdoors, sometimes chatting with the neighbors—beer in hand, aren’t due for at least another month. Now, with daylight savings, the days are longer but not yet appreciably seasonal. Mostly, it just makes us feel tired.

We theorize that, in many homes, the cold blue glare of the television has become a poor, substitute hearth. Modern folks have opted for entertainment, rather then the primal satisfaction of day’s end in front of the fire. Do they even know this? Do they ever think about the crackle of kindling, and the random dance of the flames? We certainly don’t miss television, but we yearn for a more fully realized shift of season to help direct our energies away from our now-empty patterns of winter.

I confess that I’m filling some of the void with evenings of baking—tonight, a flourless, almond based chocolate extravaganza. Summer may find us, eventually, garden-ready, but a bit rounder.

Look Ma, No Kindling


Makes me sound like a boy scout, eh? Actually it’s a comment on the weather. It’s been full-blown winter in Two Rock, which, just back from northern reaches of Michigan, doesn’t feel that bad. Our nights are at, or just below freezing, and the days just now warming from the forties, on up into the mid-fifties. Apparently we missed a big storm that landed just before we did, and some really cold nights, or so the neighbors tell us. We live in a rambling, turn-of-the-century farmhouse. That translates to no insulation, so even our mild winter can put a serious chill in the air.

‘No kindling weather’ means that the woodstove seldom gets so cool that you need to start the fire from scratch. We’re pretty much running the fire 24-7. Sometimes, when I wake up in the night, I stagger out of bed and out to the stove to add a couple of logs—just so the morning won’t be so nippy. Our little stove is undersized for the house. Then add to that the lack of insulation and pretty soon you’re talking about a different kind of lifestyle—layers. No fashion plates, here. On a chill morning we look like Eskimos. The house isn’t really that cold—we try to keep it squarely in the upper fifties, but that can slowly chill to the bone if you don’t move around a little. I remember the uproar in the 1970s when Jimmy Carter suggested that Americans turn the thermostats down to 68!  After my Two Rock training, I start to sweat at 68. Writing in the chill is a challenge. I keep wandering off, to sit in front of the fire—just to warm up a bit, you know. Sometimes I cheat, and bake. The oven heats up the kitchen and takes off the frosty edge.

We’re both stubborn. So far, neither of us has even been tempted to do the modern thing and turn on the heat. There is a furnace, an ancient behemoth that is a hulking monument to inefficiency. We could warm this place up quick, but once you start, there’s no end to it. It’s really an indirect way to heat the great outdoors, and at enormous expense. When the furnace runs you can almost watch the propane meter drop by the minute. Long ago, when I first moved here, I vowed to use it only when I had guests. (I cannot expect innocents to endure my seasonal obstinacy.) I’m holding firm to that vow. Rick’s made of similar stuff. He shows no inclination to change course, so we bundle up and wait for spring. Just this evening, while out fetching wood, he said Hi to the neighbor across the way and asked, How you doing? Our neighbor, outside for a smoke and hunched against the cold, responded, Can’t complain. So Rick offered, Go ahead, just one. The neighbor grumbles, Well, I’m going through the propane awful fast! Rick smiled to himself, and said, I hear ya, as he headed back inside.

And sometimes, if the day is warm, we open the windows, and let it in.





A Busy Week

A.V. Walters

It’s been a busy week. Not only is this high season for the garden (and gophers) we are preparing for the print release of The Gift of Guylaine Claire.  We had to enter the last of the edits and then check to see that the ebook and the print version were both fully edited, and textually identical. After that, those last details, editing the new Acknowledgements, getting the ISBN and Library of Congress numbers in, and the bar codes ready, the final tweaking on the front and back covers, and I’m sure that even now I’m forgetting things. Editor Rick is the technical guy, and he wrestles with that end of it—getting the Smashwords final version through the dreaded auto-vetting process (again!) and finessing the cover colors and interior images—hopefully in a way that Lightning Source won’t overly darken the cover images this time. He takes his graphic responsibilities very seriously and the end results show it. Yesterday the files went off to be printed, and now we’ll nervously await that exciting proof copy. It will be a relief to have it finally finished, and listed for sale with the POD retailers.

Late summer has extra chores as well. The other day we re-stacked the firewood (from a loose drying stack to a tight, ready to go for winter, stack), checking for winter readiness. (We think we’re set with two solid cords of walnut, some apple and pine for kindling.) This could have waited, but it’s cool in August. September is traditionally our hottest month, so it’s nice to do the heavy lifting in the cool. We picked up a load of pine, for kindling, and I started splitting it. A little each day and it’ll be done in a week or so. Meanwhile, the temperatures are heating up and I’m wiping my brow in relief that the heavy lifting is complete.

And, of course, there’ll always be the day job.

Unlike most of the country, where mid-summer is the hottest, many areas of Northern California have a searing September. The lag has to do with ocean currents and how their “season” is a step slower to shift. The result is that in September we lose the fog that pours in from the coast, morning and evening, filling the valley, with moist, cool air. When that natural air conditioning shuts down, we get a glimpse of what they see all summer in the inland valleys.

That’s why I’m not sweating the myriad of still-green tomatoes, peeking out from under their leaves. If the butternuts are still blooming—well, let them take their shot. I’ve been in this valley long enough to know that September will turn it around. Even with this year’s late start, I’m sure we’ll bring in the crop. Don (whose advice has devalued since he abandoned his zucchini/pumpkin patch) is trying to spook me. “What you need is them floating, row covers. Winter’s just around the corner. Could happen any day, ya know!” Right.

Not that I’m against row covers as an experiment in lengthening our already long late season. In a mild year I can harvest tomatoes well into November. With row covers, maybe we could go to December or even into January. But I’m not buying into the fear factor. The season is what it is, and there’s still much to do.



On Frost’s Edge

A.V. Walters

It’s been cool here, in the valley. Not cold, mind you, but cool in a protracted way. Nights in the low forties, combined with damp, daytime temperatures in the fifties to low sixties. They’ve conspired, over the last few days, to lower the interior of the house to the low sixties. Now, we’re flirting with our threshold temperature where, were it winter, we’d be lighting a fire. But, a fire in May? This is not some northern latitude, were talking about. We stopped with the fires weeks ago. Now we’re debating whether to light one up tonight, or wait until tomorrow morning. By then the projected temperatures will have dropped the house into the fifties. It seems like a seasonal defeat, to start burning again. After all, we’ve already done the spring cleaning–that vacuum-every-surface and launder-every-linen event that marks the end of seasonal ash and muss. We’ve shrugged off the grey dusting that accompanies a regularly fired, wood stove. Still, especially working at a computer all day, 62 or 63 feels right chilly. The walk out to the mailbox (about a half mile) is a welcome break when it’s actually warmer out, than in. We’re torn. Fire up the wood stove and enjoy a last, lovely game of scrabble before the summer season, or bundle up and rally on, regardless?

Nights in the low forties remind us that it’s not yet time to plant. We’re getting some buckets dug in, but we’re still at risk for frost, so we don’t dare plant. This lull gives us the opportunity to turn our attentions to other things in the environment. For the past few days we’ve been trying to identify a new bird in the neighborhood. We’ve never seen him before. He’s some kind of a raptor, but not any of the ones we typically see around here. He sits tall, like an eagle, but (while we initially suspected am immature bald eagle) his beak just isn’t that distinctive, long-hooked eagle beak. It’s short. He’s pale grey with darker wings or wing banding, and a long tail. His belly is very light and his head’s light but a tad more grey than the belly. He has a yellow beak and dark bands to the eyes. It makes him look sophisticated, unless you watch too long. Oh, and he’s clumsy. We gather that he (or she) is an immature whatever, because he hasn’t yet figured out the mechanics of a graceful landing. He approaches it from afar, with his legs in a stiff, outstretched position. It makes us think that maybe he’s an osprey. He practices touch-and-goes all day, in the tall, near-dead tree next door at the dairy. Since he showed up, all the littler birds have made themselves scarce. Sometimes he lands (though not well) in a taller evergreen near the near-dead tree. We were watching just a few minutes ago as he faltered in the tree again, and then—-again. But, wait a minute! Now there are two of these clumsy critters! They’re fledglings and that tall evergreen must have a nest! Oh, my. This is going to be more interesting than I thought. Any birders out there with suggestions on what we’re actually looking at?

A. V. Walters


Just a quick update to Snobs–we’ve run out of almond! Even with beautiful days, our cold nights have completely drawn down our store of seasoned firewood. It’s not that we’re wasteful; we keep the house at about 62 degrees. I’ve reached the point where I find a normal home’s (say 68 degrees) stifling.

I called my supplier and he couldn’t help us. Apparently the almond growers have been lured out of the firewood market by guaranteed sales to the biomass buyers. When they pull an orchard for rotation, these new buyers will immediately grind the entire lot for the co-generation of electric power. The growers recover a little less, but they don’t have to store the wood for seasoning. They can almost immediately re-plant with new trees. That is, after all, their business. They’re almond growers and the focus is on the nuts, not firewood.

However, my supplier did slyly indicate that he’d scored some manzanita–hot burning, dense, with as many BTUs as our favorite, almond. It’s a rare opportunity; he’s never seen it before in  quantity. I checked it out on the net and, sure enough, manzanita has the same BTU rating as almond. And it is beautiful wood. The interior looks like cherry. The smooth bark ranges from rust to burgundy. And it is heavy. We got a sample–a third of a cord to carry us until it warms up at night. So, this evening we’re sampling our new, exotic firewood. It’s lovely and it’s hot! The listings on the internet warned us not to overload the wood stove and they weren’t kidding. So, for those who thought we were firewood snobs before, eat your hearts out! We’ll finish out the season with manzanita and do next year with a blend of Walnut and what manzanita we have leftover from this season. Hopefully, beyond that, we’ll be able to get more almond.

A.V. Walters


I may have spoken out of turn when I announced it was Spring in Two Rock. It’s something, but I’m not sure just what. Northern California seasons can be a little confusing, especially if, like me, you’re from areas that have real winter. I’ve been here over thirty years and I still get caught short by faux seasons.

So we’ve had gorgeous days in the 60s and 70s. We walk up to feed the emus and, from the vantage up the hill, the valley is beautiful. The daffodils are in bloom, even in Two Rock. (I say even because Two Rock is always a couple weeks behind Petaluma–and more when it comes to frost free nights.) The grass is lush, mostly from melting frost or fog, because we’ve had so little rain this season. I just barely got the peach tree pruned before the buds started to swell. A few of the blossoms have popped open like popcorn. Plum trees are in full bloom throughout the valley. Over the weekend we drove to Santa Rosa and saw them pruning the grape vines in the vineyards. The most dramatic and confusing thing is the mustard. Farmers put it in as a cover crop, sometimes mixed with rye grass. The mustard is in full bloom now. Whole fields of yellow, sloping with the contours of our rolling hills, take your breath away as you crest the hill and come down into the valley. How could it not be Spring with that display of yellow?

Three nights of sub-thirties temperatures is how. We still need to keep the fire burning to keep the house from slipping into the 50s. I’ve always thought that this mid-winter hesitation was a feature in the California winter. It’s too early to plant but you can still clean up the garden, prune (though you best hurry up on that at this point), plan, divide bulbs and generally get things ready. If you’re really old fashioned, you can clean and sharpen all the garden tools. (I always wished I could be that dedicated. Instead I sharpen on the fly, as needed, and almost never clean a shovel or spade.) My first Spring here I was chomping at the bit to plant. Elmer said, “No. We see frost until the first week of May.” Every year he’s been proved right. So I wait, leaf aimlessly through the seed catalogues and peer anxiously at the dwindling wood pile.

I worry about the weather. Though the surface is damp from the dew and frost-melt, too little rain has left the soil dry any deeper than that. I worry about the well and about whether the dry soils will be a challenge for the garden through the summer. Will this cold weather kill off the blossoms and spoil the fruit tree harvest? Can the peaches and plums pollinate so early–when the cool days and nights impede the bees? But I’m a worrier. Probably it’ll all be fine. By April I’ll be planting seed starts for transplanting when the soils warm up. In May we’ll be digging in buckets, and it will fall into place, like it does every year. In the meantime, I’d better throw another log on the fire.

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!