Neighbors to the Rescue

I like to chop wood. Maybe it was my early training as a Boy Scout. Or those tales of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack in the big woods, got to me. 

Could it be I was moved beyond prudence by the poetry of Robert Frost?

Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.

—“Two Tramps in Mud Time”

At any rate, I’ve always enjoyed swinging an axe.

Robert Frost, 1913. Unknown photographer. Public Domain.

This year, however, the task threatened to overwhelm. From wood-gathering efforts chronicled here and here, I had more than enough fresh honey locust in my backyard, needing to be split.

We don’t use those big, round logs mentioned in Christmas carols (“See the blazing Yule before us, falala-lala, lala-lala!”). Logs must be halved, quartered, or even eighthed, to fit our small cast iron stove. Apart from mere size, wood ignites quicker when it has a cleft inner surface to feed the flame. 

An Intervention

I started to split the honey locust, and some river birch from the same source, with my trusty axe. 

My neighbor Dick rented a hydraulic splitter. I helped him use the splitter on his part of the take. I had never used one before, and it’s impressive, the ease with which it shivers great logs into small ones. It’s a good job for two people—one to horse the logs onto the splitting bed and one to push the lever that makes the machine go. 

A small part of my bonanza.

Need I spell it out? Dick did the heavy lifting and I provided the wrist action. A fair distribution of labor, agreed. But I was beginning to think I’m an old man, needing to be spared exertion.

When we had reduced his logs to splinters, he offered the use of the machine for mine.

“I actually enjoy splitting them with my axe,” I said. “Good exercise.”

“Well—”

I grinned. “However, some of my logs are too big and heavy to split easily by axe. So I gratefully accept your offer.”

Fooboo the dog inspects split logs.

We wheeled the machine to the back end of my garage. In a half-hour’s time we split the biggest and baddest of my logs down to halves or quarters. Plenty of logs remained to be split the old way, gratifying the woodsman inside me.

We hitched the splitter to the back of Dick’s car, and he towed it back to Home Depot.

Since then I have used my axe to make three face cords of split wood. That’s probably enough for now, as we head into winter. Tons of prime honey locust still await the axe. It will keep me busy all winter, whenever the snow is low enough.

Why Is This Important?

Ordinarily, the way people keep warm is their own concern. It’s hard to excite others about it. 

There may be curiosity value in historical heating methods. Someday perhaps I’ll tell you what it was like to live in a house heated with a coal furnace, what one had to do—and it was the child’s lot to do it—to keep the flames alight. 

Tom Thompson, Man With Axe, 1915. Public domain.

But this year’s saga of my firewood husbandry is of possible interest only because it shows our dependence on one another. Some of our wood was a gift from my friend Jack. Some was a gift from our neighbors Nick and Shelly, who no longer needed their honey locust tree. 

In processing the huge logs down to burnable firewood, I had help from my neighbor Ben on one side, and my neighbor Dick on the other side. 

They say firewood warms you twice—once when you split it and once when you burn it. But the warmth of working with friends and neighbors is not to be discounted.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

What About Honey Locust?

Having received a generous donation of firewood from our friend Jack, we were well on our way to having enough to heat our isolated sunroom for the winter. But we still needed more.

People on the corner one street over had a huge tree taken down. I approached the tree-felling contractor about the wood. 

He looked askance, rubbed his chin. “Thing is, we sell it. Be happy to sell you some nice, quartered firewood.”

“Mmph. Thanks anyway. Mumble-mumble.” I didn’t go away angry; I just went away. 

*

“Honey, how about that big dead oak down the block and around the corner? They’ve got machinery in the yard. Looks like they’re planning to cut that tree down before it falls on somebody and kills them.”

I ambled down the street and around the corner, drawn by the whine of a chainsaw. A lone arborist attacked the homicidal oak and stacked its branches along the curb. I examined the cut ends. All rotten and insect-riddled inside. I didn’t even mumble, just walked away.

*

One day in late November, I moped at my laptop, Googling “Firewood for Sale,” when heavy machine sounds pierced my reverie. I looked out the front window. There, across the street, in front of Nick and Shelly’s house, swarmed a crew of lumberjacks. 

A Promising Development

Stop the presses!

I moseyed across the street and talked to the boss logger. Yes, Nick and Shelly had decided to cull a big honey locust from their backyard. The arborists were already hauling the results to the front curb, shredding the smaller branches in a big machine and stacking the big limbs to be hauled away. No, Nick and Shelly didn’t want the wood.

The foreman, rather than haul the big limbs away, was happy to dump them on my yard instead. “That’s great firewood, in case you didn’t know,” he said. “High heat density.”

Logs in our front yard

I Googled it up and sure enough: Honey locust—or any kind of locust—is about the best firewood you can get. Mucho calor, low smoke output, easy scutting, easy splitting. Jackpot.

Using a log-grappling loader, they brought me lots of logs, six to eight feet long and hundreds of pounds each. I started cutting them to fireplace length with my little chainsaw, but by the end of the day, the loggers’ enthusiasm had left my efforts far behind. 

I waved a grateful farewell to the lumberjacks and considered the fruits of their labor: A pile of logs so numerous and heavy my yard should have caved in.

Oops

I had my wish: Enough good firewood to last the winter. Way more than enough. 

I invited my next-door neighbors, Ben and Dick, to share the wealth. Ben had to leave for a few days of Naval Reserve service, but Dick responded with alacrity. He came over the next day and helped me by moving and positioning the huge logs for optimum cutting. 

Logs in our backyard

That’s no small contribution. When you work with a chainsaw, half your time, attention, and energy is spent making sure the logs you cut fall the right way. If the log is balanced at the wrong point, it can either sink and pinch the cutting chain or fall out of control and roll in an unfortunate direction. Dick’s brawn, applied to positioning the logs before each cut, helped me cut them in a rapid and safe manner.

I don’t work for more than an hour or two with either an axe or a chainsaw. Why? Because when you’re tired is when you make stupid mistakes.

A stupid mistake when working at my laptop might dim my literary star. A stupid mistake with a chainsaw is something else again.

I called a halt and begged Dick to take some of his share home as soon as he could. We were in a race against time. If the logs stayed on my front lawn through the onset of winter, they could be frozen there until April. Dick brought his wheelbarrow over and took a lot of logs to his backyard. 

More logs in our backyard

The next day I finished cutting the big logs. Ben got back from Naval duty and hauled some of the logs away to his house. I trundled the rest through our long tandem garage and out the back end to where we keep the firewood.

Now, all that remained was to split them.

Next Time: To Hydraulic, or not to Hydraulic?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

To Make a Fire (Jack London, Eat Your Heart Out)

It’s lumberjack time again. 

We burn wood in our living room fireplace, in our backyard fire pit, and in a small woodstove that warms our sunroom. We fire up the first two venues only occasionally, mostly when the kids are over. But we burn a lot of wood in that little stove in the sunroom.

The sunroom

The sunroom, with its large windows showing our backyard and part of our wooded neighborhood, is a pleasant place to sit and write, chat, dine, or just sit and ponder. It is not served, however, by the gas furnace and ductwork that heats the rest of the house. Even to call it a “three-season room” is a stretch, because here in south central Wisconsin, spring does not get going until May, and winter has been known to start in late October. Burning wood makes the sunroom a year-round site.

Last year we went through about three face cords of wood. A face cord is one third of a cord. A cord of firewood is a stack four feet wide by four feet high and eight feet long. But nobody burns four-foot logs. You cut them into “fireplace length,” about sixteen inches.

You can’t be exact with logs. Some may be cut eighteen or twenty inches long, others less than a foot. But on average, they’re sixteen inches. We split the logs and dry them on eight-foot racks. Each rack holds a face cord.

We may burn more than three face cords this year. How much time we spend in the sunroom depends on how much wood we have.

This spring we had almost a face cord of miscellaneous logs left over. But spring is not too soon to start scrounging for more. You want your wood to dry a few months before burning; a year or two would be better. Dry wood burns hotter than fresh wood. And did I mention, I hate to pay money for firewood? I like to get it for free, but the opportunity has to be right. 

The Hunt Begins

“The guy down the street has that big tree in his backyard that blew over a while back,” said my wife, Jo. “You could take your chainsaw and offer to give him a hand with it.”

“Mmph. Rotten old thing. Mumble-mumble.” I preferred, so early in the spring, to dilly-dally. Even, if need be, to shilly-shally.

“But where are we going to get firewood for next winter?”

Jack to the Rescue

Jack’s wood burning in my stove

Did I mention my friend Jack? A splendid gentleman of the old school, he happens to be a Renaissance man: classically educated, a Vietnam vet, a horseman, an expert witness on matters involving masonry construction. Jack is also a writer with a great book, not yet published—just as I am a writer with a great book, not yet published.

By the way, Jack owns and operates a large farm near Madison. He’s perpetually cutting down old trees, and he invites me to share the wealth. This year my daughter, Katie, and I went out to his farm and scored a couple of van loads of white oak and walnut. Already cut, split, and seasoned. Some of that wood warms me as I write these words—in my sunroom, surrounded by  a snowy landscape.

Jack gives me wood, and I usually bring him a bottle of something nice. Katie brings him honey. This is not payment for the wood. We’re just doing something nice for a friend, who happens to have done something nice for us.

So, thanks to Jack’s generosity and a bit of left-over mulberry from our own yard, we now have more than a face cord of dry, burnable wood. But we neded quite a bit more. Even if Jack invites us out again, it will not completely fill our need. It seems to me churlish, not to mention unwise, to rely solely on one generous friend.

What shall we do?

Next Time: What About Honey Locust?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A Pair of Good Books

It’s a good season for robust and interesting writing. I have two book recommendations, one fiction and one nonfiction.

The Coming of Cactus Jim

Kansas sheriff James Early makes his debut in Early’s Fall, by Jerry Peterson. Known to his friends as “Cactus”—and I guess I’ll have to read another book or two to find out what that’s about—Early is a cowboy sort of guy, equally at home riding the range on horseback or in a sheriff’s department jeep. 

The book, set in the 1940s, opens with a bold-as-brass daylight bank robbery in a sleepy little town. Early and his deputy scour the countryside in a high-speed, all-terrain chase, to no avail. Before they can catch the taunting, whimsical bank robber, they get distracted by a grisly murder.

Jerry Peterson

As Early methodically investigates likely suspects in the murder, he stops a passenger train, interrogates an Israeli secret agent, and is forced to balance his professional duties with care for his pregnant wife’s mental aberrations. Everything unravels inexorably to an exciting and moving finish.

Peterson, a seasoned author with fourteen books to his credit, knows how to keep a story moving at a compelling pace. His diction is strong and his images stirring. You won’t lightly put down Early’s Fall.

Combustible Wisdom

Norwegian journalist and author Lars Mytting has three critically acclaimed novels to his credit. But the book that made him a household name in the Nordic world is the nonfiction classic Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.

Mytting’s book comes along at just the right time to make me a better-informed woodsman. Some of his practical advice—about axes, chainsaws, and such—tallies with my own observations over the year. Some, however, has given me a new understanding of the best ways to process timber for burning in my fireplace or my cozy little woodstove.

I had long assumed—I don’t know why, wishful thinking perhaps—that if logs sit in the open air for up to a year before being split, they will be better seasoned and thus will split better, or at least easier. Wrong, says Mytting. Log should be split just after the timber is felled. Not only does the wood split easiest when it is fresh; the splitting itself is essential to the proper seasoning of the wood. To dry quickly and fully, the inner wood must be exposed. A log that sits, fully wrapped in bark, for any length of time will start to decompose from the inside out. Even a little bit of this internal rot eliminates hot gases needed for efficient burning and guarantees that the log will never fully dry.

Lars Mytting

So from now on, I’ll split all my wood as soon as I get it.

For me, that was the great lesson from this informative book; for you, something else might be. Writing with fluid and engaging clarity, Mytting delves into all aspects of the Scandinavian firewood experience, as witness his chapter heads: “The Cold,” “The Forest,” “The Tools,” “The Chopping Block,” “The Woodpile,” “The Seasoning,” “The Stove,” and “The Fire.” Each subject, by turn, is thoughtfully and fully explained. The whole book is well-illustrated with photos of lovely and creative woodpiles.

If you burn any wood at home, this book is sure to tell you things you’ll wish you had known before.  

#

Two books, Early’s Fall and Norwegian Wood. Great books for the he-men, and the she-women, among you. Go now and read.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Making Firewood

Hardships bring us back to the essentials.

Bereft of people to see and places to be, I turn to the dwindling wood-pile in the rack along my garage wall. 

A couple of years ago our friend Kevin rebuilt our old miscellaneous junk depot, making it into a newly inviting sunroom. It’s an awkwardly long space with a lot of windows but no connection to the furnace that warms the rest of our house. So Kevin installed a cast-iron woodstove at the far end of the room.

The author at work by his woodstove. Lacey the spaniel as Sancho Panza.

That woodstove has become a great blessing to Your New Favorite Writer. It means I can write in the calm of our sunroom in warm weather, in the cooler times of spring and fall, and even in the deepest part of winter.

But the cost is: Procuring enough firewood and splitting the logs to stack for drying and burning.

Into the Trees

Old-timers say firewood warms you twice: First when you cut it, haul it, and stack it; and second when you burn it.

I like to get logs for free, rather than pay money. From time to time, someone in the neighborhood has a tree felled; usually this work is done by hired arborists. If the homeowner does not want the wood, the wood cutters must haul the logs to a dump for disposal—an added expense I can lighten for them by taking some logs off their hands. It never hurts to ask.

After hauling a few heavy, 4- to 6-foot logs home in the back of my SUV, I need to cut them to fireplace lengths. I use a small, seven-pound Stihl chainsaw with a 14-inch bar. Small beats large where chainsaws are concerned. Schlepping a 23-pound, 20-inch murder machine around a tangled logjam will knock the stuffing out of you in half an hour. Very few men or women who are not woodsmen by trade can put a large chainsaw to good use. And fatigue will make the urban lumberjack a danger to self and others.

The essential tool.

The timber is sawn, ideally, into 16-inch segments; then the real fun begins. Logs need to be split (1) so they’ll dry more efficiently, for the bark holds moisture in; (2) so they’ll fit conveniently in the stove; (3) so they’ll burn more readily as flames lap at their exposed innards; and (4) so Your New Favorite Writer may enjoy the satisfaction of cleaving a pillar of wood with the bite of a sharp axe.

Verse in the Vernal Heat

Robert Frost in 1941. Fred Palumbo photo. Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Public Domain.

Robert Frost waxes lyrical over chopping in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud-time”—

Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

Scavenging for wood seldom brings me “good blocks of beech” that fall “splinterless as a cloven rock.” Quite often I’m using, by turns, my axe, a heavy splitting maul, or even wedges and a sledgehammer to demolish a twisty, knotted specimen of brutish maple or fruitwood with desperately cross-tangled fibers. It’s frustrating to try to smash such a godforsaken glob of sylvan perversity to flinders.

Larry the logger levitates lumber. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

But, ah! when I do score a nice chunk of straight-grained hardwood—such a joy to plummet the steel down upon it and pick up the halves on either side, to set the halves again on the chopping block and knock them into clean, glistening quarters. If you have ever done this kind of elemental work, then you know the peace it bestows.

Splitting wood adds rest and harmony to the soul.

Some of my neighbors use hydraulic splitters that can shiver a timber to its component parts in seconds. I have no quarrel with this efficient practice. I just like my way better.

Pride of Axemanship

Frost mentions a pair of bystanders who watched him at his beech-splitting chore: 

Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.

So there’s that, too. Pride, you see, rears its ugly head. I am proud of the little wood lore I have gained over my 75 years on God’s green earth, starting as a Boy Scout and continuing to the present day. Whatever small skill of axemanship I possess has been earned through uncounted hours of practice on “the unimportant wood.”

Let us say, rather: The importance of wood may be more in its first warming than in the second.

A beautiful Danish woodpile. Photo by BKP, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Owing to my amateur status as an axeman, and also to the amateur status of some of the trees I scrounge, my woodpile is far from a thing of beauty. Unlike those geometric wonders of forest engineering you see gracing the pages of coffee table books, my woodrack has all sorts of bent and twisted knots and gnarls, wood of all descriptions protruding rudely to snag the sweater of a careless passer-by. It’s almost disgraceful.

But here’s the thing, Gentle Reader: I intend to burn up all the evidence.

The motley wood in my garage.

#

The menace of this season’s global pandemic, with its mandated idleness, has simply led back to roots, and branches, that are dear to me for their own sake. 

Here’s hoping you likewise may find blessed paths to pursue as we patiently await good tidings from our common future.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer