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

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Wisconsin Chainsaw Meditations

My daughter wanted to fence her backyard, but a big old bush blocked the way. 

She called. “Dad, can you bring your chainsaw?” 

Me with chainsaw. Katie Sommers photo.

Well, natch. What are dads for? I drove across town and performed an emergency bushectomy. No sweat.

But Your New Favorite Author wasn’t always a shrub shredding ace. Tons of tuition has been paid.

My first chainsaw, purchased more than thirty years ago, was a Poulan with a 20-inch bar. The bigger the better, right? It weighed 992 pounds on days of low humidity. 

A small tornado tore through one year and left our backyard filled with an 80-foot silver maple in prone position. Too big a job for me alone, even with my monster chainsaw. I called my friend Mikey, who lives Up Nort’, and he brought along his friend Rick. 

I noticed their chainsaws were small ones with 14-inch bars. They fired up their little machines, and I fired up my big one, and we went to work. After five minutes, Mikey said—with that tact for which he is justly famed—“Larry? Maybe you could stand over here and take it easy for a bit? Big trees like this can be tricky. Rick and I are concerned you could get hurt.” 

Two hours later, the tree had been sliced, diced, cubed, and quartered. It stood in neat little stacks all over my backyard. My friends, with their 14-inch chainsaws, had reduced a three-foot-thick trunk to silver maple briquettes. And I was all unscathed—except for my macerated self-image as a lumberjack.

Lesson One: It doesn’t take a huge machine, if you know what you’re doing.

I couldn’t get over how easily Mikey and Rick handled their little chainsaws, and what a chore it was for me just to lift mine. So I sold the monster and bought a 14-inch Stihl MS180C Mini-Boss, which is the saw I’ve used for the past fifteen or twenty years. 

I only hauled it out once or twice a year. At that frequency of use, one never quite masters the elements of the machine. I had trouble just getting it started. If it needed cleaning or a new chain, a major pageant ensued. Forget the simple steps breezily outlined in the owner’s manual. There’s no substitute for having enough experience to know how the thing works.

For various reasons, I used the chainsaw more often, several times per year. At last, I accumulated enough operator time to get acquainted with my machine. It’s impossible to overstate how proud I was of myself for finally figuring the beast out. 

Decimating the obstacle. Katie Sommers photo.

But need I tell you, Dear Reader, that pride goeth before a fall? Nay, you know that already. In fact, you could look it up. It’s in the Bible, Proverbs 16:18.

I did something quintessentially stupid. I tightened the chain at the end of a cutting session. As the machine cooled, the tight chain tightened further, pulled the bar out of line, bent the drive shaft, and scrambled the transmission parts inside the engine housing. 

You need to be an actual idiot to do something like that. 

Lesson Two: Don’t be an idiot.

I took the mangled machine to our local power center for an estimate. They called me later that week. “Gee,” the man said, “to re-seat all those parts, replace the bent and damaged ones, and get it all back together in good working order, would come to $138.49, plus tax.”

“Doesn’t really shock me,” I said.

But the voice on the other end of the line said, “The thing is, you could buy a new one for not much more.” 

Of course I could. But the new one wouldn’t be the same model, because they don’t make those any more. Even if the model number was the same, it would have been improved many times since I bought it. 

Half a lifetime of hard-won learning curve is built into the chainsaw I’ve already got. If I bought a new one, it would be ten years before I mastered the effortless starting feature. And I’m already in my seventies.

“It’s got sentimental value to me,” I said. “Go ahead and rebuild it.”

So they did, I paid the $138.49, plus tax, and now I have a good, dependable chainsaw that I know how to use and that I never, ever tighten at the end of its cycle. 

Even so, I would still call for outside help if I had a big tree come down.

Lesson Three: Sometimes it pays to rest on your laurels.

With all this history in mind, I loaded my 14-inch Stihl into the back of my SUV, threw in a can of gas-oil mixture, a jug of bar lubricant, a chainsaw multitool, a spare chain, and work gloves. And headed to my daughter’s house with well-earned confidence. 

I wonder if she has any inkling what a treasury of woodlore and mechanical know-how resides in that dinky little chainsaw.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)