Fall should be a placid time. From my porch I can see ample firewood for this year and next, but it must be natural when you reach a certain age, with most of the adult responsibilities behind you, to obsess about the trivial.
Like everyone who heats with wood, I keep a watchful eye on my woodpile. Last winter was exceptional with its streak of bitter nights throughout February and March, day after day without a thaw. It turned me from watchful to nervous and raised the curtain on a false drama of survival. Yes, a furnace will come on in our house if the wood runs out. But running short is anathema for me, with the deep woods just a few hundred yards away and the knowledge that if I am willing to work hard enough a wood stove should heat our house all winter.
There are many ways to go about getting wood in for the winter, but mine all involve summer days made for laziness, sunrises when the ground is already warm and the air filled with the sounds of dog day cicadas. On Sunday mornings in August, the sounds of chainsaws ring in the hills like church bells. Long ago, I learned the value of dry wood the hard way. We had turned our house over to a renter who bought his wood so late that all he could find was green, and twice that winter I had to drive a few hundred miles to clean the chimney. Now we live in the house year-round and it’s tighter, too. We have replaced our temperamental wood furnace with an efficient stove, and each summer I cut and split the wood we will burn two winters down the line.
Even in a normal winter I obsess on my wood supply. Every armful I bring into the house diminishes what remains outside, and there is always a point when I begin to calculate how many days it will take to run out. My goal, of course, is to start the fall with more wood than I could possibly need, so when I’ve built the last fire some time in May, there will be a little left to carry over. Until that day arrives, however, there is always doubt. Our porch runs into a hillside, and under the roof there is room for seven stacks. I like to think of the near one as October’s wood. I pilfer from it in September knowing it will last into November because each stack is a little more robust than a month’s needs. I like coming into the house and saying to my wife, “It’s Veteran’s Day and we are still using the October wood.” And so it goes in a normal year, the wood and my smugness in a kind of Doppler effect, seven piles for nine months and a little left over for the following year.
Last year, I must have had an intimation of what was coming because I built our early fires not with wood from the October stack but with odd pieces that had accumulated for years near my splitter, wood too chunky or gnarly to stack. The first time I touched the October pile there were snowflakes in the air, and everything looked good into November. Then the sun seemed to disappear for three months, and I heard a tremor in my voice one day as I said, “I think we may have to dip into next year’s wood.” I began seeing posts on the local listserv from people looking for wood. One Sunday morning in February I was out for a run on a remote and snowy road, and I saw two fuel trucks making emergency deliveries.
Why obsess when there is no real danger of the house going cold? It’s a matter of principle, but perhaps more than principle, it’s the feeling of control that motivates me. Despite all the idealism and the truckloads of wood loaded on hot summer days, despite the afternoons at the splitter and the memory of the soreness in my back, there is always the possibility of running short.
As it turned out, we didn’t. Spring hesitated at the doorstep, then entered like a prodigal son. On some chilly mornings, rather than start a fire, we put on sweaters and trusted the sun to warm the house. Somewhere in my past I learned that if you never use more than half of what you have – money, food, toothpaste – you will never run out. But last winter issued a warning, and from now on I’ll cut and split just a little more firewood.
Jonathan Stableford was an English teacher for 43 years. He and his wife now live year-round in South Strafford, Vermont.