Archives for posts with tag: wood heat

I go through this every year. At some point, hopefully, I’ll learn to trust the numbers and relax. Thus far this year, we’ve been burning firewood from last year. That means we heated October and November without touching this year’s wood. The other day we exhausted that supply, and I loaded up the wood crib from the new wood for this year.

This will be our fourth winter here. We have learned from experience that we burn just over three cords of wood in a heating season. Behind the house, in two big stacks, is the pre-measured wood, stacked neatly, ready for this season. There’s a certain confidence, looking out the window to see those two big piles of split wood–each of these piles is four feet wide, twelve feet long and four to five feet high. It’s a generous three cords.

The wood crib, our storage area just outside the back door, holds between a third and a half cord. And that’s a good thing. But it means I’ve just pulled a significant chunk of firewood from the winter’s stores. It’s a big bite, and it shows. (Though we’ve only just moved it to a more convenient location…it’s not like I ate it or anything.) Of course, I panic. Will we have enough?

You know, some of the forecasters are predicting a particularly cold winter. (Though so far, they’ve been wildly off the mark.) And, this year, a percentage of that wood is beech, instead of ash. Ash is denser and has significantly more heating heft than beech. I look at that woodpile and wonder if there’s enough.

I do it every year.

It doesn’t even seem to help that we have already cut and brought in most of the wood needed for the following year. Because, poaching on next year’s wood would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, wouldn’t it?

I seem to have invented a whole new category of seasonal anxiety. The woods from which we harvest is directly behind us. It’s unlikely that, in any given year, we’d be able to exhaust the supply. When I purchased the property, some 30 years ago, I specifically selected it, in part, because the hardwoods section was big enough for our needs, without ever cutting a live tree. For this year, we can continue to bring in more wood, until the snow is too deep for the Kubota. Beyond that, we have an ice-fishing sled with which we could continue to haul in more if needed (and it’s all downhill). But that’s not really the issue. Needless anxiety is the issue.

The weather has turned colder, and we have our first real snow that “sticks.” To work through my needless anxiety, I asked Rick for his outdoor priorities with what’s left of the outdoor work season. Without hesitation he answered that there’s a couple more trees that have fallen and he’d like to cut them and bring them in.

I guess it’s contagious. Sigh. We do enjoy harvesting firewood–so it’s not a problem. At some point, we’ll be able to relax, knowing that there’s enough. We should be there, now. We won’t run out.

Maybe fraught elections aren’t enough. Pandemics aren’t enough. We’re humans and we find reasons to worry.

Observing the New Year

A.V. Walters

There must be near as many ways to bring in the New Year as there are people. My mother thinks it’s bad luck to start the year with any of her ironing left undone. That’s not a problem for me. My current life style doesn’t include ironing. I don’t even know where my iron is—somewhere in storage, I hope. My sister’s New Year superstition is about what you can eat on New Year’s Day. No poultry for her. (Apparently, if you eat chicken, or birds that scratch, you’ll spend the entire year scratching for a living.) She hasn’t indicated whether or not that eliminates eggs for breakfast. What does that say about pork? After all, pigs root around for food. Does that bode ill for the traditional New Year’s ham? (or bacon with those questionable eggs?)

I don’t do resolutions, either. Sure, I could lose a little weight, or be more regular in my sleep habits. I’ve already cut way back on sugar. I figure if there’s improving that needs doing, one ought not wait for the New Year over it.

I’m not one much for observing holidays, except Thanksgiving, which I like so much that some years I celebrate it twice—Canadian and American. I do like to have all the laundry done, not because of my mother, but it seems a shame to bring last year’s dirty laundry into the New Year. So, I guess my New Year’s observance includes tidying up a bit. We don’t go out. We don’t watch any “balls drop” on television. That would be boring and impossible, since we don’t have a television. Yesterday, though, we took the tidying to a new level.

We’ve been gathering wood. We won’t need it this winter, since we’re behind in the building schedule and the house isn’t ready. But we’ve been cutting, hauling and splitting deadfall off and on since the summer. It’s been piling up, waiting to be stacked. So we decided to finish splitting what we have and to stack it all as a fitting close for 2014. It was easier said than done.

We estimate that we’ll need four cords of wood to heat for winter. My sister uses just over five, but hers is a much bigger house—and three hundred miles north of us. They get a longer, colder season. We don’t keep the house as warm as some do—65 degrees is about as warm as we can stand. We figure that we have about four cords cut now—though we’ll know for sure by the end of the day. Yesterday we stacked two cords, snug up against the cord I stacked this past summer.

The aim is to have two year’s worth of wood cut and stacked. That way it’ll “season,” which just means that it’ll get good and dry for a clean, long burn. My sister (the show off) is working on being three years ahead. We’re continuing to clean up the deadfall in the forest through the winter and, as long as the snow doesn’t get too deep, we’ll likely have our two year supply cut and stacked by spring. When we start the “regular” firewood season, next fall, we’ll be working on three years, too. I’d feel pretty smug about that. A good store of firewood, now that is rich.

When I was a kid, my dad made me stack wood crisscrossed, the old way—so that it would be stable. I started like that for the first cord. I suppose that it’s the best way but it takes me forever. I get caught up in it and spend forever selecting the perfect piece to go in each spot. Rick rolls his eyes. So yesterday we started the day at our local hardware store, picking up some metal fence posts to hammer in at the end of the stacked rows. That way I can just stack without getting too finicky. We store our firewood stacked on wooden pallets and then tarped to keep it dry. At some point we’ll build a woodshed—after the rest of the house, and the pole barn, and the chicken coop, and the…, well, you get the point.

It took forever today to stack two cords. The wood pile has been a loose trip hazard, logs just tossed over after splitting. Part of it was covered, but we ran out of tarps during October’s constant rains, so as the pile grew, a good bit of it was open to the elements. It rained over Christmas, while we were away, and then the temperature dropped. By the time we were ready to move the pile and stack—much of it was frozen in place. It looked fine but when you tried to pick it up, it wouldn’t budge. So we had to first break it up with the sledge. Two steps forward, one step back. In the future, I’ll try to stack after splitting. (That’s a common sense plan, not a resolution.) And with that, we should ring in the New Year, just fine.

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.





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


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!