A neighbor cut down a large pine in his backyard last week and rolled the chainsaw rounds to the curb. He said, “Help yourself.”
The rounds were well-tailored, some the size of bass drums. They weighed enough that the sight of them was reminiscent of hernias, compressed intervertebral discs, and the fact that my bowel control during moments of extreme exertion was not what it once was.
I wheelbarrow the bullets one by one around the corner to my house, and when I threw them out, they bounced off my driveway with a hollow, sonorous thump! – the driveway shuddered beneath me at the weight of them. There were about three dozen when I finished, and they lay there, some upright, some on their sides, like giant board game tokens.
I had a long-handled maul and as I stood over one of the rounds I aimed for the heart of it. I waved as hard as I could and… the maul bounced off the wood. The blow left only a small damp fissure in the round. I waved again. Bounce. Again. Bounce. Again. Bounce. The sap-filled and spongy wood was not in a cooperative mood.
I retreated to my garage, retrieved two wedges from a tool cabinet and smashed them into the center of the round with a sledgehammer. There is that moment of satisfaction when the wood, wounded, groans with a resinous creak and succumbs to the thrust of blows, splitting along a fault line as the earth opens up. The round collapsed. I stood over it, my t-shirt already damp with sweat, then went to work dividing the two halves into quarters, then eighths. When I was done, my hands hum from the vibrations of the blows. It would be a long afternoon.
There are hundreds of websites about wood stacking — so many that it seems like wood stacking on social media is only surpassed by the tribulations of the Kardashians. For enthusiasts, wood stacking involves both science and art, and details matter.
There are discussions in the woodpile community, for example, about stacking “barks” or “debarking” – which seems crazy barks to me. Some stackers are so picky that they cut their circles to equal length before splitting; some, aware of the airflow, stack wood in neat cross-hatched patterns so that the finished product resembles a long Jenga puzzle turned on its side; and some – architecturally adept – stack wood in the form of spirals, balls, cones, hay bales, even entire houses. Some pile their wood into walls so sturdy they look like the work of mosaic workers. Some woodpilers treat their woodpiles as canvas, and online you can see images of rising suns, fish, wild boars, wooden wheels, birds in flight, and – who would have thought that woodpiling could include irony? – felled trees. These wall-like piles have the same transience as Navajo sand paintings, their artistry being slowly burned away by winter.
The Norwegians famously stack their wood in huge circular piles that resemble silos. They are breathtaking to watch, in their own strangely finicky way. But then, Norwegians are strangely picky about woodpiling. When national broadcaster NRK aired a 12-hour broadcast on the subject — yes, 12 noon — 20 percent of the population tuned in to watch. The show consisted entirely of people stacking wood and then burning it in a wood stove for eight hours. It sparked a flood of angry emails to the show’s producers, dividing the country along the barking divide. Hundreds of others called to complain about the way the fire was being managed.
It was a Norwegian, Lars Mytting, who wrote the surprising international bestseller Norwegian Wood: chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way. Among the practicalities of woodpiling, Mytting related how American women in the 1800s measured a man as husband material by the shape of his woodpile. An upright and sturdy man would have an upright and sturdy woodpile. A tall woodpile spoke of a man of great ambition, but prone to collapse and disaster. A lazy man left his pile unfinished, while the man who put away much wood for the winter promised to be faithful and diligent.
In that vein, after four excruciating hours of splitting and stacking my wood, a woman who considered me a husband might have looked at my woodpile and wondered if I was incompetent. I started stacking by shading the wood neatly, but the irregularity of the pieces clouded my ability to keep the rows level, so after the second row I changed my mind anyway and stacked the wood in every possible way. The result looked like a mouthful of British teeth. Miraculously, it remained upright and contained so many spaces that, if experience is any indication, it will house potato bugs, ants and spiders all winter, some of which, on their way to my fireplace, will find a home in my house.
It is said that by chopping your own wood you heat twice – once when you chop it and once when you burn it. This aphorism is often attributed to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond in 1854, but similar versions appeared long before that. Some argue that a more updated version could be that chopping your own wood warms you up three times – once when you chop it, once when you burn it, and once when burning wood contributes to global warming. the earth. Still, there is debate as to whether or not burning wood contributes to global warming, which is a question for another column, as my back hurts and a hot shower is calling my name.
Pete McMartin is a former Vancouver Sun columnist.
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