A Woodburning Life

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

At about 9:00 on an overcast November Saturday, a group gathered at the edge of the Hopkinton/Webster Transfer Station (hereafter referred to as the dump, since that’s its real name and will never change). They sipped coffee, pulled on gloves, and adjusted ear protectors. Then they started to work. There were loggers, tree care experts, high school students, police officers, doctors, farmers, and lawyers. There were whole families, a guy on crutches, a few dogs, a legislator or two. (This is New Hampshire, after all.) By day’s end, they had cut and stacked more than 21 cords of firewood, and delivered most of it to the homes of their neighbors. What was left would be available throughout the winter to anyone with an unexpected need for fuel and a way to burn it.

The funny thing is, lots of the people who volunteer their labor have their own wood to get in: cords of it. It’s a challenge finding the time and energy to cut wood for someone else. Some of the volunteers handle wood for a living, and might like to forget about it on Saturday. But people want to do this. Those who pitch in want to help others in town, even if they haven’t met them. It feels like the right thing to do — and who knows, they might need help themselves someday.

I think it goes deeper, though.

People around here understand wood heat. It has advantages that oil and electric heat don’t have. Not to romanticize — heating with wood is hard and messy. But wood heat is more than just heat. I’ve sometimes thought that my children came home for winter weekends and holidays so they could sit near the wood stove, doze on the couch next to it, or back up to it and warm their buns. At least, I strongly suspect it’s one of the key ingredients of what they think of as home. Cats, of course, are the ultimate wood heat appreciators. My cat lies near the hearth all winter as though dead. Wood heat penetrates your bones, connects you to the hearth and what’s deep under it. Wood heat contains contentment as well as calories. When guests are coming, we light fires in our wood stoves and fireplaces, even if it’s not quite chilly enough to need them.

My connection with firewood goes back a long way. My brother and I sold trunk loads of split hardwood to campers at the state park where we grew up. The wood came from trees that were cut down over the winter. Our father, the ranger, taught us the art of splitting, and we took in $2 per load. (We also sold bait to the fishermen.)

Later, as a member of the University of New Hampshire Woodsmen’s Team, my favorite event was dot splitting (a timed event in which you try to split a log into four full-length pieces, each with a bit of the red circle painted in the center.) I also liked sawing. My partner and I competed in not only college meets but the Deerfield Fair, where we took fourth in the two-man crosscut sawing competition (three cuts through a green 10x10 pine cant). The fifth place team, with the names of Harvey and Doug, wasn’t too pleased to be out-sawn by a Laurie and a Cathie.

When my husband and I lived in Maine with our two babies, we installed a small Atlantic box stove in the living room and a wood furnace in the basement. We were in our Mother Earth phase: never ordered a load of split wood. We have the scars to prove it. That stove went into storage in our basement when we moved to New Hampshire and got a lovely blue enameled Vermont Castings, followed by our side-loading Jotul. The Jotul is super efficient. But the other feature that makes me love it is its arched glass window. When clean, it’s like an ad for a ski area condo. Even when it’s clouded with carbon and fly ash, its orange glow makes me feel content.

I like splitting, moving, and stacking wood, although I realize how fortunate I am to have other options — namely, nudging the thermostat up and sending a check to the oil delivery company. One of these days, I imagine, I’ll say the heck with it, and that’ll be the end of splitting, carrying, loading, stacking, sweeping up wood dust, and dumping ash. Not just yet, though.

Our old Atlantic is in our daughter’s home now, warming her little ones. Whenever my granddaughter passes the stove, summer or winter, she holds out her hand and says, “hot,” as though it’s the name of the object. It’s the first lesson of a woodburning life. I expect it will be the first of many.

Laurie D. Morrissey is a writer in Hopkinton, New Hampshire.

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  1. Penelope Harris → in Cambridge, Vermont
    Jan 22, 2018

    Hi Laurie. We’ve heated with wood for 35 years now. First in our condo in Williston for 8 years and then in our house in Cambridge. We have a wood furnace. Her name is, of course, Woody. When it’s our turn (my husband and I) to go down and feed the creature we always say, “Going down to feed Woody.” There is nothing like wood heat as your article portrays. However, by the time April rolls around I’m ready to ditch the ashes and splinters in my fingers to flip the oil switch but we never do. The ashes go into the compost and garden. It always gives not just heat but fertilizer and comes in real handy when there’s ice on the road. Melts ice better then salt. We’ll heat with it until we keel over. Hope we can do it.

  2. Cindy → in Middleton
    Jan 23, 2018


  3. Harold L. Hoover → in BLoomingdale, Illinois
    Jan 23, 2018

    Laurie, loved your memories and comments about wood heat. My friends and I believe that wood heat has a special radiant wave length not possessed by other fuel forms such as gas, oil, and electric etc. The burning wood imparts this very comfortable wavelength to everything it heats, which in turn projects it to everything surrounding it. I have a friend with a combination wood or oil heat furnace. You can definitely tell the difference when the forced air furnace is in the wood heat mode!!

  4. Leslie Hauck → in West Jeddore, Nova Scotia
    Feb 02, 2018

    Ditto to all your comments including sleeping cats, Laurie. I’m 71; started with wood stove and fireplace as a baby (not literally) at a summer place in the Great Lakes, and now 46 years with a kitchen range and living room glass-front Osborne.
    There is nothing like wood heat, and this old house from around 1870 really requires wood heat to be comfortable.  As a kid one of my favourite activities in summer was walking the woods collecting birch kindling; still one of my favourite things to do, and it gets me out and rambling.

  5. Garry Plunkett → in Tiverton, RI
    Feb 03, 2018

    There’s something about wood stoves that warms the body, the mind, and the soul. It connects you to the earth, and to the past.

    It’s probably a mental thing, but nothing like it warms, REALLY warms. With the baseboard heat going strong It can be plenty warm in the house, temperature-wise, and I shiver. But fire up the stove, and almost immediately comfort floods the mind and the senses, even before the cat hops up on my lap.

  6. Walter Ruhl → in Fairfield, VT
    Feb 03, 2018

    1971, built our first home burned wood in Franklin stove,1976 older hot air furnace wood heat and a lovely fireplace wood heat.1981, built our 3rd home and heated with wood boiler add on. 2001, built our retirement home and have heated with wood boiler add on, this year our insurance company charged an extra $100 dollar/year surcharge for wood stove heating. I cut all my wood from my neighbor’s farm at a small cost, so I suppose we may continue our long romance with great wood heat for a few more years. Our home is never cold and we have saved thousands. Our oil tank was last filled in 2005 and still has a half oil in it. Last 16 years, 100+ cords cut have been salvaged, dead trees from 400 acres.

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