The wood piles in people's yards around here are to die for. When I drive down the road, it's not the Christmas decorations that draw my eye, but the wood piles stretching majestically across the frosted lawns with a minimalist beauty all their own. No matter how long the pile, it is the same height all across, and the end pieces are arranged in a cross-wise pattern that ensures that the vertical edge of the pile is perpendicular to the ground. From the front, the best piles are as regular and textured as honeycomb.
This fall my husband and I had an especially abundant supply of wood to lug from the side of the garage where it had been drying to the front porch. While he did the lugging, I took charge of the stacking. How hard can it be to stack wood, you say? Not very, I thought, at least at first. I figured that to keep the pile from collapsing, I needed to stack the end pieces of each layer at right angles to the rest, and I tried my best to do that. But it wasn't until the last log was in place that I stepped back and was horrified: while the pile looked more or less o.k. from the front, its profile was a disaster--logs stacked at perilous angles to each other, precarious diagonals giving an unfortunate dynamic feel to a structure that I had wanted to be restful and symmetrical.
Dejectedly, I pointed out the pile to my husband. "What's wrong with it?" he said, wiping his brow.
"It's the first thing people see when they drive up to the house, and it screams flatlander," I wailed.
The wood pile failure was an esthetic one, but it was followed by a second, functional one. Most of the wood that I stacked came from a big tree that fell across our driveway in a storm a couple of years ago. We had it cut and split, and gave the logs a long time to dry. That dry wood burns better is one of the two things I know about firewood. The other one is that you shouldn't burn pine because it gunks up the chimney.
Other than that, I thought, all non-pine wood was pretty much the same. How wrong I was became apparent the first time I built a fire with the home-grown logs, in the expectation of a warm evening cozily reading Iris Murdoch. Although they were light as balsa wood, they took a long time and prodigious quantities of paper to start burning, and had to be continually coddled and encouraged to keep from dying out. Imagine my dismay when I realized that, even after an hour of my nursing the fire--while Iris sprawled, unread, face-down on the sofa--the stove was producing very little heat.
That's when the memory came winging to me of some apple tree trimmings I burned in the fireplace once back in Maryland, and how blindingly white-hot those flames had been. (They had smelled good, too.) I have no idea what kind of non-pine it was that fell across our driveway, but it obviously wasn't much good for keeping one warm.
Clearly it's time for me to stop winging it in this matter of fire wood. Next year I'm getting a firewood mentor, a Vermonter or near-Vermonter who will tutor me in the fine points of choosing wood, and stacking it. And when I have a North-country-worthy wood pile of my own, I'll take a picture of it, and post it on this blog.