The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
The first time I visited Washington State, I became a little disillusioned. My friend, Chris, and I drove north from Portland through the Olympic Peninsula, which is a drive full of natural wonders, especially for a young guy from North Carolina. What I remember most was the trees. Huge stands of evergreens crept right up to the coast, where they met a turbulent ocean full of giant rocks called sea stacks.
I’d never seen trees that tall, much less on the coast. Looking back, it was a scene that felt like a movie.
The disillusionment came as we drove inland, away from the coast and into logging country. There are few landscapes that look more bleak than a recently cut forest and I came face to face with miles of of it. My first reaction was sadness and disappointment. I wanted the western side of Washington to be the lush and green place from my imagination.
A few years later, I moved to Seattle and started to understand more about the logging and timber industry. Specifically, I came to see managed forests as large and long-lived crops that are a renewable resource and a significant part of the local economy. What I saw on that trip was part of the harvesting and replanting process.
Over time, I developed a fascination with the trees of the pacific northwest and especially Douglas Firs which are found all over western Washington.
Once you become familiar with their shape, they appear everywhere, including countless tattoos, the license plate of Oregon and the flag of Cascadia. Sachi has picked on me for years about always wanting trees on my shirts, hats and walls. It’s kind of a thing for me.
In moving to Orcas Island, we found ourselves in a place covered in firs that are both beautiful and an essential element of self-sufficiency. Over our first winter, we noticed that nearly every house we visited featured a wood burning stove or fireplace, along with a carefully built stack of wood.
Before long we had our own stack of wood and fired up our Blaze King wood stove on winter nights. I was the fire master and loved the process of building and tending the fire. I loved the warmth, which felt different from the hot air that flowed through the vents from a heat pump. It was like my skin evolved to respond to that kind of warmth and there was nothing else like it.
When spring rolled around, I missed having the fire and realized something about our plans for the new house. We had a gas fireplace in the city which ignited with the push of a button, and planned to have a similar model in the new house. It was so clean and easy.
Having burned wood for the winter, gas just didn’t seem right. I started to feel the new house needed a wood burning fireplace instead. Sure, it would be more maintenance and take time to manage, but that was part of the experience. Dealing with wood and building fires, in my view, seemed like a great use of time. Besides, the other option was to use expensive propane from a tank on the property. I preferred the wood.
Seeing smoke rising from chimneys made me wonder if burning wood is friendly to the environment. I worried that we’d build a fireplace and then, ten years later, regret it when wood seemed irresponsible. A bit of research soothed my worry.
In terms of efficiency, it’s true that fireplaces are not the best heat sources. They produce warmth, but are mostly for aesthetics. A room with a roaring fire feels and smells like home and that’s what we wanted. Our house will be heated on a day-to-day basis through more efficient means.
The reality of burning wood in terms of carbon dioxide is fascinating. As a tree grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and carbon from the soil. When the tree dies naturally and decays in the forest, the carbon it absorbed is released. In burning wood, that same carbon is also released, so it’s similar to what would naturally happen in the forest. Burning wood doesn’t create new CO2 and is considered by many to be carbon neutral [source]. Burning wood can cause air quality issues, but the population in our area is low enough for it not to be a problem.
Long story short, I won’t feel irresponsible for burning wood in our fireplace. And that’s fortuitous, because it’s becoming clear that wood is something we’re likely to have for years to come.
The area surrounding the Yurt is home to a couple of large Douglas Firs and I fell in love the first time I saw them. It made me happy to think about these big trees being my trees. I imagined lighting them at night and making them part of the experience of the new house.
As the layout and position of the house became clearer, the trees started to become an issue. I was adamant, for a while, that the trees had to stay. But the reality was they needed to be taken down. They were too close to the house and represented a hazard. A single branch could do serious damage, which we saw firsthand after one windy winter night at the Yurt.
We asked an arborist to take a look and he said the trees were a risk and that building so close to them could slowly kill them and make removal even more expensive and difficult. He and others also said the trees were “gnarly” and not good candidates for lumber.
Over time, I came to terms with the idea that the trees, my favorite Douglas Firs, had to go. Thankfully, they were a small part of a forest on the property.
After the Yurt was removed, there was room for the trees to fall and I was excited to learn how it all worked. Basically, the excavator holds the tree while another person cuts through it. When it’s ready, the excavator simply pushes it over.
Of course, I had to get footage from the drone.
Then, a person walked down each trunk, cut off all the branches and cut each tree into sections that were moved into a pile by the excavator, which is where they are today.
Before the wood can be used, it needs to cure for a year or so. Then, we can save some for projects and turn much of it into firewood.
I like the idea of the trees from our property keeping us and fellow islanders warm for winters to come. I dream of cold rainy nights with the fire roaring. I look forward to stepping outside and hearing the sound of wind breezing through the evergreens by the house and feeling like I finally live amongst them. My trees.