The woodpile and me

  • Gail Binkly

 

My husband claims not to believe in the "end times" and all that, but I'm not sure I trust his denials. How else, other than a firm belief in a coming apocalypse, to explain his obsession with firewood?

Never mind that we live in Cortez, Colo., on the fringe of the desert, in a home with central gas heating. We have enough downed timber scattered about our yard to heat a house in Siberia for the coming decade.

Twenty years ago, when I moved to this town after living in a big city, I was startled to spy a wood stove squatting in the center of our rental home. I was unfamiliar with burning wood and reluctant to befoul the clean country air. But when the first chill of autumn settled in, it soon became apparent that the propane heater could not warm the corners of our abode.

"We need wood," insisted David, who grew up in Appalachia. He seemed strangely eager, even excited, about the prospect of heaving chunks of piñon into the stove. I soon realized there is a manly glamour attached to the whole process of heating with wood. First, the trip to the forest with a big pickup. Next, the snarl of the chainsaw, the cutting, the sweaty loading and unloading. Finally, the most macho task of all: splitting.

Despite my then-slender frame, I was eager to try my hand at it, so David selected a short log with no knots. I gave it a stiff, comical chop. "No," my husband said wisely, like David Carradine in "Kung Fu," "you have to concentrate. Think your way through the wood."

I concentrated and swung. The huge log seemed to turn to butter; my blade sank through it into the ground. I was smitten. On winter afternoons, when the sun was golden but the wind ice-edged, I split logs in front of our house. Once, as I paused with the maul poised above my head and an enormous round of oak beneath, I overheard three little boys across the street muttering: "I'll bet she can't." When my blade cleaved the log in two, I realized few of my other achievements in life had ever been so gratifying.

Yes, I decided, wood had its charms. Nothing smells quite so sweet as freshly split cedar, our word for juniper trees. And no one can deny the hypnotic allure of flickering flames -- like staring straight into the chaotic, unknowable heart of the universe.

Over the years, however, my ardor for wood cooled. Maybe it was the soot settling onto our furniture, the spiders scampering across the hearth, or the stinging pall of smoke hanging over our neighborhood on still, cold nights. Or maybe it was just that we'd moved to a house with central heating as well as a stove.

"Wood is dirty," I told my husband. "It's honest," he replied.

I understood his point. Modern technologies separate us from the source of the energy. When I turn up the thermostat, I don't hear the compressor station's roar, or smell the fracking chemicals that force natural gas from the ground. When I plug in the electric heater, I don't see coal being sheared from the earth. But with wood, I must carry the logs inside, inhale the smoke, haul the ashes. I experience the connection between production and consumption.

So, a couple of winters ago, when David fretted that our wood supply was low, I agreed we could pay to have some logs hauled in. Then I found myself standing in two feet of snow while a dump truck of pine emptied into our front yard. The pile -- roughly the length and breadth of our entire living room -- dwarfed the old car sitting beside it. Dismayed, I pictured the generations of black widows and paper wasps it would nurture, the endless hours it would take to stack.

David, however, smiled contentedly. "That ought to last us for a year or two," he said. At least I know that, should Armageddon ever arrive, we'll be warm.

Gail Binkly is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). She writes and keeps warm in Cortez, Colorado.

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