One of the things you learn when you leave New York is that heat doesn’t just happen. Before we moved to the Cape, the closest I got to my heat source was passing the building’s boiler room on my way to do the laundry. In the winter, our apartment was almost always too hot. Even with the radiator turned off, the ambient heat from the neighboring apartments kept us stripped down to our shirtsleeves.
Ah, those were the days.
Now, our primary heat source is wood, and I have the kind of familiarity with it that is very likely, over the long haul, to breed contempt. So far, it has bred only irritation, but it’s a slippery slope.
Our battle with wood began in the summer, when we started to collect it. We live on two acres covered with trees, a handful of which are conveniently dead or dying. Kevin tackled them with his brand new Husqvarna chain saw (I wish I’d been at the meeting where they chose that name), and cut the downed logs into 20-inch lengths. That’s when I learned my first lesson about wood: it’s very heavy.
One of the trees was at the bottom of a little marshy depression in our back yard, which meant that the 20-inch segments had to be lugged up from their resting place to where we parked the utility trailer on the driveway. That was about 150 feet in distance and 25 feet in elevation, a trivial walk.
Trivial, unless you’re carrying a log that weighs 100 pounds. Then it’s second cousin to the Bataan death march.
Our woods are too dense and rocky for any labor-saving vehicle, and Kevin and I spent most of a day hauling the logs up by hand. I think it was ‘round about mid-afternoon that my idea of the romance of heating with wood from your own land suffered a mortal blow. There’s no romance in wood. There’s only hard labor.
But there was a real sense of accomplishment in getting all those logs up, and stacking them between a couple of trees close to the house.
“That should get us through the winter,” I said to my husband, with some satisfaction.
“Next winter,” said Kevin. “Or at least a couple of weeks of it.”
That’s when I learned my second and third lessons about wood: It has to be seasoned, and you need an awful lot of it.
“It’s partially seasoned because the tree’s been down for a while, but we need to dry it out for at least a year.” Kevin told me. A year! For all we knew, we would have given up and moved back to New York by then.
Kevin went on: “And this is probably only half a cord. We’ll need three or four cords to get us through a winter.”
The oil-fueled furnace in our basement, which I’d planned to use only as a back-up, was looking better and better. Oil comes in a big truck, and the nice oil-delivery guy hooks a hose up to your tank and fills it. All you have to do is watch, and write the check.
“So what are we going to burn this winter?” I asked Kevin, “the furniture?”
“We’ll have to buy wood.”
My previous experience with buying wood was limited to the shrink-wrapped kind you get at the supermarket. The kind you buy by the cord is different. It comes in a dump truck, which dumps it in your driveway in an unconscionably large pile. You then have to move it, a prospect that raises an important question. Where do you move it to?
The problem with storing wood is that, for obvious reasons, you’re supposed to keep it dry but, for less obvious reasons, you’re not supposed to keep it in the house, the garage or the shed. Those less obvious reasons all have six legs, and they’re hiding out in your wood just waiting to find a more hospitable home in your walls.
We have a couple of appropriate places to keep wood – a little shelter and a frame we can cover with a tarp – but they’ll only take about three-quarters of a cord. The rest, well … I’m hoping we’ll burn most of it before the insects wake up from their winter stupor.
As we stacked the wood in places we weren’t supposed to keep wood, I started to wonder just how much exercise I was getting. Turns out a cord of wood weighs two tons, more or less. Each log gets moved several times, so I figure that handling four cords translates to moving eight tons of wood about 100 feet. And that’s if you buy it from someone else, already logged, cut, and split. Do the logging, cutting, and splitting yourself and your gym membership is obsolete.
We finally got it all stowed away, and that’s when I learned my fourth lesson about wood: It’s messy. No matter how thoroughly you bang it around before you bring it in the house, It sheds dirt and bark and crumbs all over the floor. You vacuum (and you vacuum, and you vacuum), but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. You look behind you, where you just vacuumed, and there’s already a trail of dirt and bark and crumbs.
It became clear to me that the people at Miele, who made my vacuum cleaner, make city vacuum cleaners. After my machine choked on wood chips for the umpteenth time, we broke down and got a Shop Vac. It cost what five Miele bags cost, and it swallows the wood chips with very few complaints.
I’m the only one left complaining, and I haven’t even started a fire yet.