Tuesday, March 19, 2013


We live on just under three acres.  Though in my dreams we could live on a piece of land from which we could supply and gather our own wood to burn, this is not realistic here.

The kids have a running joke that I see firewood everywhere we go.  It is true.  After our first winter here, one spent raiding the old brush piles and splitting the logs that had been cut from fallen trees and stacked throughout the property by previous owners, not only was I an experienced and more muscular wood splitter, but I also was well aware of the need for dry burnable wood.  

I also learned it is possible and kind of satisfying to chop wood in a skirt.  

I often arrived to pick up Elliott from school at lunchtime feeling as though I had a secret. I was pretty sure that most Mommies I ran into at pickup had not spent the morning working out at the large slab of wood in the backyard, where I had created an elaborate circuit using an ax, a sledge hammer, a wedge and a very heavy duty pair of work boots...just in case. My own version of a gym membership. I fantasized about tucking the ax in my shoulder bag and bringing it along, just to see what kind of comments I might get.  

But the wood we chopped that first year was limited in supply and had not been...ideal. After watching us boiling our sap on wood from the brush pile and coughing from the resulting smoke, a friend commented on the difficulty of actually getting it to burn. "You know," he ventured, "there is probably a reason why that wood was on the brush pile and not on the woodpile."


Ever since that first winter, whenever we are out walking, I can't help noticing fallen trees.  I imagine kayak powered log drives during which I pull the precious logs -- left behind by beavers with teeth bigger than their bodies -- back to our dock.  I dread the northeast winds that blow through our property here for their potential damage to our 250 year old maple, Sylvia, but a part of me wouldn't really mind if one of the old dead ones, the Not-Sylvias, just toppled over gently and came to rest somewhere close to the kitchen door where we could sizzle it up.  Providing heat.  From our land.

I call it sizzling, a neologism that continues a long tradition in my family of making up words if you are uncomfortable or are feeling too forward about asking something. It is how the Stetsons verbally soften the blow.  My mother snitches a bite of food in the kitchen before the meal is taken to the table.  She sozzles dirty dishes in warm soapy dishwater. Here, we get scrappy when we need to scrape the bottom of the proverbial barrel.  Elliott, in an unnatural falsetto, asks for a teensie bit more dessert. Sizzling it up is my way of asking my Scarsdale-raised husband to put on his orange chaps, work gloves, goggles, hard hat and boots and risk his life and appendages to chain saw me up some heat.  

These orange chaps are donned much to the amusement of our children, but I think the chain saw terrifies all of us.  Yet it allows us to clean up our own property and turn blow downs into usable sized pieces.   I realize it is one of the many ways in which we live here that is very different from those we spend our days with.  It is work we can do ourselves that is less expensive than hiring others, and allows us to touch and tend our yard, becoming covered in its beauty. And in its messy grit.

We recently had a father drop off his children here to play.  His first comment to us as he walked from the driveway toward the house was: Every time I come here you have more firewood.  What are you doing with all of this wood?

It took me a few hours of thinking about his confusion and comment to realize what was behind his question.  He did not understand why anyone could need this much wood.  He does not use wood to warm his home.  And he certainly does not see fallen trees as warmth and nature's way of providing.

My simple answer to him should have been heat.

We use all that wood for heat.  In our home of eight fireplaces, two with wood stoves, wood heat is part of our effort to live authentically in this house.  As I look about the kitchen and the living spaces, and especially in the basement where you can see the substantial brick arches built to support the masonry work above -- the central chimney is rumored to have been constructed from 26,000 bricks -- this is a home that was designed around heat and around how to orient the occupants of each room toward it.  It feels right to us.  It also feels right to limit our use of fossil fuels as much as we can.

Last summer we purchased six cords of firewood and we pushed back the start date for firing up ye olde wood stoves for as long into the Fall as I could bear it. Then I watched anxiously as the winter months passed, and the six cords of wood dwindled, the pile getting smaller and smaller until a few weeks ago, after a week spent chiseling out the last remnants of the bottommost pieces, each of which came out with moist soil and pill bugs still attached, were gone.  Then began the hard weeks, weeks in which like a starving animal, I looked around at dead trees in our yard, making comments to Jonathan like, do you think you can get out the chain saw and sizzle me up some wood for the week?  We boiled our sap on branches and blow downs from the winter mostly.  It was all a bit too scrappy in my opinion, and a bit too cold. So this year we will order more and will do the work to stack it and eventually to carry it into the house when we need it.

And, I found, after a winter spent together in the house organized around our two wood stoves -- a magnetic force that brought us all together and into close proximity, all facing the glow like an audience at a performance of Mr. Heat Miser -- that I had come to depend on this wood heat for warmth and for centering.  As Jonathan and I discussed what to do about our dwindling supply, we laughed at ourselves and admitted that yes, we could just walk over to that box on the wall that some may call a thermostat. But I call it a direct line linked to the plug in our bank account, a plug that is pulled each time the shiny oil delivery truck appears in our driveway. 

We use our oil furnace to keep the house's temperature above pipe freezing potential, especially when we are away from home, and also to heat our hot water.  We hope to change this system some day, but for now, it is what we have.  But somehow a room with evenly distributed heat seems wrong to me these days.  That would allow the kids to be off in the corners of the room or worse yet, in their bedrooms, or for me to be off in my office instead of huddled in the kitchen close to the fire as the kids biddlebop about. Without our firewood, we would not physically experience the changes in seasons and weather, the arduous but now routinized process of bringing in wood, collecting kindling, using the bellows, sweeping up the ash. Experiences which we each have now found our place within.

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