Saturday, January 27, 2018

Living A Wood-Burning Life

fireplace At about 9 am on an overcast November Saturday, a group gathered at the edge of the local dump.

They sipped coffee, pulled on gloves, and adjusted ear protectors. Then they started to work. There were loggers, tree care experts, high school students, police officers, doctors, farmers, and lawyers. There were whole families, a guy on crutches, a few dogs, a legislator or two. By day’s end, they had cut and stacked more than 21 cords of firewood, and delivered most of it to the homes of their neighbors. What was left would be available throughout the winter to anyone with an unexpected need for fuel and a way to burn it.

The funny thing is, lots of the people who volunteer their labor have their own wood to get in: cords of it. It’s a challenge finding the time and energy to cut wood for someone else. Some of the volunteers handle wood for a living, and might like to forget about it on Saturday. But people want to do this. Those who pitch in want to help others in town, even if they haven’t met them. It feels like the right thing to do — and who knows, they might need help themselves someday.

I think it goes deeper, though.

People around here understand wood heat. It has advantages that oil and electric heat don’t have. Not to romanticize — heating with wood is hard and messy. But wood heat is more than just heat. I’ve sometimes thought that my children came home for winter weekends and holidays so they could sit near the wood stove, doze on the couch next to it, or back up to it and warm their buns. At least, I strongly suspect it’s one of the key ingredients of what they think of as home. Cats, of course, are the ultimate wood heat appreciators. My cat lies near the hearth all winter as though dead. Wood heat penetrates your bones, connects you to the hearth and what’s deep under it. Wood heat contains contentment as well as calories. When guests are coming, we light fires in our wood stoves and fireplaces, even if it’s not quite chilly enough to need them.

My connection with firewood goes back a long way. My brother and I sold trunk loads of split hardwood to campers at the state park where we grew up. The wood came from trees that were cut down over the winter. Our father, the ranger, taught us the art of splitting, and we took in $2 per load. (We also sold bait to the fishermen.)

Later, as a member of the University of New Hampshire Woodsmen’s Team, my favorite event was dot splitting (a timed event in which you try to split a log into four full-length pieces, each with a bit of the red circle painted in the center.) I also liked sawing. My partner and I competed in not only college meets but the Deerfield Fair, where we took fourth in the two-man crosscut sawing competition (three cuts through a green 10×10 pine cant). The fifth place team, with the names of Harvey and Doug, wasn’t too pleased to be out-sawn by a Laurie and a Cathie.

When my husband and I lived in Maine with our two babies, we installed a small Atlantic box stove in the living room and a wood furnace in the basement. We were in our Mother Earth phase: never ordered a load of split wood. We have the scars to prove it. That stove went into storage in our basement when we moved to New Hampshire and got a lovely blue enameled Vermont Castings, followed by our side-loading Jotul. The Jotul is super efficient. But the other feature that makes me love it is its arched glass window. When clean, it’s like an ad for a ski area condo. Even when it’s clouded with carbon and fly ash, its orange glow makes me feel content.

I like splitting, moving, and stacking wood, although I realize how fortunate I am to have other options — namely, nudging the thermostat up and sending a check to the oil delivery company. One of these days, I imagine, I’ll say the heck with it, and that’ll be the end of splitting, carrying, loading, stacking, sweeping up wood dust, and dumping ash. Not just yet, though.

Our old Atlantic is in our daughter’s home now, warming her little ones. Whenever my granddaughter passes the stove, summer or winter, she holds out her hand and says, “hot,” as though it’s the name of the object. It’s the first lesson of a woodburning life. I expect it will be the first of many.

Laurie D. Morrissey is a writer in Hopkinton, New Hampshire. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine, and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

9 Responses

  1. Very nice article. We too, keep a fire going; the family and dogs all congregate around it. We have an outdoor wood-fired oven; keeping it fueled is a family affair. The wood is generally cut smaller– 2″ pieces. The kids (in their 30’s) cut the wood. The older grandkids sort it and restock the wood pile. The younger grandkids gather the birch bark tinder and kindling in the woods.

  2. Joe Geronimo says:

    I grew up in suburbia and we had moved into our new home in February 1980 and it was bitter cold. Also at that time the energy crisis was ongoing and our new home had an oil burner. My mother & father quickly had a wood burning insert installed but living on Long Island cutting our own wood really wasn’t easy. However my grandparents lived in the Pocono’s and my dad built a small trailer to tow behind our Ford LTD station wagon, as we would visit at least once a month. I’d spend the weekend in the woods with my dad and grandfather cutting wood to bring back with us. My grandparents heated with wood as well. As an adult I have always liked the idea of heating with wood but because of my job schedule have chosen to reach for the thermostat. It does get very cold in upstate New York and we will use our fireplace to take the chill out of the living room. Thank you for sparking the memories!

  3. Jim Leach says:

    Thanks for this wonderful essay. We started burning wood to heat a drafty farmhouse we’d rented in Chazy. My daughter, who turned 42 Friday, was born while we were living there. And the Morso we bought to heat that house now warms a camp on Limekiln Lake.

  4. Brian Joseph says:

    I do love a good fire from time to time. But isn’t heating with wood dirtier than using just about any other source of energy?

  5. frankw says:

    Great article. I burn at least four cords of wood a winter to heat my 1000 sq ft house where it seems to be winter all year around. These days I opt to buy a few cords as well as gather my own.

    Wood burning, like most things is becoming a lost art. Like a friends mother who has a coal stove to heat her home. Some days expect a knock on my door with a person there to argue that the plume of smoke from my house is killing the environment. But gas and electric bills well under a hundred dollars a month can’t be denied.

    And the cat…… well she spends are days either on the ottoman or her cat bed two feet from the stove. In late spring and early fall she stares with a mean look in her facing wondering where her fire is.

    • drdirt says:

      thanks, that ditty just brightened my day .,.,., but the cat by the fire, where its cozy and drier, has the best winter home of them all !!!

  6. Luke says:

    A long time ago, I read an article in Mother Earth News about Russian fireplaces, or masonry heaters. Basically, they’re large masonry wood burning furnaces that are located within a home, and use an outside air source to super heat the firebox into extremely high temperatures. Then the heat is channeled through paths in the structure. The heated structure, often soapstone exterior, gently radiates the heat throughout the day, warming the entire house.
    I thought, if ever I get to build my own house, I’m getting one. Well, I did about 7 years ago, and I really enjoy it. Trying to find someone to construct one in Central NY was difficult, but I found a mason in Rochester who specialized in them. He also installed a pizza oven on the kitchen side of the fireplace (I use it as a divider between my living and kitchen) which functions nicely to rapidly cook a pizza at 650 degrees, or slowly braise a dutch oven all night when the fire is dying down.
    Although they’re more popular in Europe and the central norther states, they seem to be slowly making there way into NY. I highly recommend them.

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