The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
We didn’t always plan to have a wood-burning fireplace. Coming from the city, where people often have sleek natural gas fireplaces, wood seemed dirty and cumbersome, which it is. After living on Orcas Island for a while, it became clear that wood is a very common form of heat and one that’s as sustainable on the island as it is abundant. It is a very wooded place.
During the design phase of Flattop, we took great pains to design wood-burning fireplaces as the heart of our home along with propane gas connections, just in case. This cold and dark winter was our first chance to learn how we’d use wood and fire.
We knew the indoor fireplace wouldn’t be a primary heat source. We have very efficient in-floor radiant heat that keeps the house warm and comfortable. The fireplace is more like a hobby, or a muse. It warms us, but not only on the skin. When the fire is roaring on a stormy winter night, it’s a feast for the senses. There is nothing like the sound and smell of a wood fire. When the warmth it produces touches the skin, it seems to penetrate all the way to bone. I like to think that we all evolved to feel this connection. Something deep inside us is naturally drawn to the light and warmth of fire.
I sometimes marvel that this wild and destructive force can be alive right in our living room; a tiny bit of the sun, safely tucked into a fireproof box. It could kill us and take away our most prized possessions. But we tame it. We keep it near, but not too near. We feed it, but not too much. We allow it to breathe but in only one direction. We benefit from thousands of years of practice and experiments. Yet, each fire still feels like a challenge. The perfect fire is not something you ever achieve. It is only an aspiration.
And I do aspire. You might assume that millennia of building fires would have taught us exactly how to build and maintain a fire. The basics are pretty simple and most people can build a successful fire. But I want more. I want to maximize and design. I want to experiment and learn the nuances that make a fire great. For most, including me, this means a hot fire that uses wood efficiently and burns more cleanly.
Most people on Orcas Island, and especially those who use wood as a primary source of heat, use wood-burning stoves. Because they enclose the fire in a metal box and feed it oxygen, it burns more cleanly and efficiently. It’s still a hobby for many, but one that errs on the side of productivity versus aesthetics. The toasty feeling of a home warmed by a stove is a special feeling. It can quickly become too hot, but the heat is variable and fleeting.
What we all have in common is our woodpile, which also has all manner of nuance and challenge. There are two major sources of wood on the island. First, there are wood processors with large machines that cut and split wood with great efficiency. Anyone on the island can order firewood that is delivered in a pile, cut to the desired length. Second is the homeowners who process their own wood. When trees fall or are felled, they process them using a chainsaw and wood splitter. I aspire to this, too, but am firmly in the delivery camp for now.
Last spring, we had two cords of wood (Douglas fir) delivered and we quickly stacked them in the back corner of our property for the summer. The wood needed to dry or “season” before the fall and that happens by being open to the elements.
The wood needs to release moisture and the wind is an essential part of the process. Some day we will have a proper woodshed, but for now, a tarp over the top will have to do.
Thoreau wrote, “Every man looks upon his woodpile with a sort of affection.” I know what he means. Our first pile was a practice run. Like the fire it produces, there is no perfect pile, only the aspiration. We did well to keep the wood off the ground and stack it for maximum airflow. I’m sure many island residents would have constructive criticisms. There is always next year.
As the first fall approached, we learned a valuable lesson. Our wood is split into rather large pieces that burn slowly. With the right combination of kindling and other fuel, they could be productive, but it soon became clear that we’d need to intervene. We’ve had a hatchet or two, but for the first time ever, I bought a proper ax and couldn’t help feeling like a lumberjack turning big wood into small wood.
Splitting wood has become part of my exercise regimen and one that I enjoy. There is something meditative about the process and the concentration it requires. There is no room for extraneous thought when wielding a sharp piece of heavy metal in the direction of your feet. And man, is it satisfying to feel, see, and hear the wood shatter into pieces from gravity, a bit of muscle and decent aim. The smell of freshly cut wood is like nothing else. Another feast.
To feed my wood fire aspirations, I’ve been reading books. I loved the book Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Mytting. The book is cultural as much as practical and also contains research about wood and the wood lifestyle. This book was where I first learned of The Wood Age.
Elderly Scandinavian men with a passion for firewood are often told that they have entered something called the “wood age,” or that they have been bitten by something called the “wood bug.” The anthropology surrounding a passionate concern for firewood has not been the subject of much study in Norway, but research carried out by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in 2007 appeared to confirm that a “wood age” does indeed exist as a distinct and measurable state. Nine hundred families living in Sweden were studied-the criterion was that all used woodburning stoves-and the results were unequivocal: It is men more than sixty years of age who spend the most time dealing with wood. Only 29 percent of the women in the study took any interest in firewood.
Once again, I aspire.
We will soon order more wood and stack it as we did before. This time, I may split a lot of it, which makes for easier stacking and better drying. This summer or next, we plan to create a more permanent home for the wood, perhaps under a shelter more permanent than a tarp. For now, we have enough wood to burn in the evenings and for the occasional bonfire this spring. Soon, the dry summer will arrive along with its seasonal burn bans. Our wood will be dormant for many months, safely seasoning in the back of the garden. Then, once summer turns to autumn, we’ll once again eye the woodpile with anticipation. The first fires of fall are the sweetest.