Eva Murray: Firewood
MATINICUS — Our first wood fire this year in the kitchen stove was weeks later than usual. We put it off until a few days ago, everybody busy and managing to get through each day without making preparations for winter, but the other night I could no longer resist one of my very favorite luxuries. Kerosene heat just isn’t the same. I cleared around the stove, wiped the dust off the top, and brought in a few sticks left from last year. Stored inside the oven through the summer were the noiseless Canadian stove-top fan, the iron trivets, the green enamel water pot from L.L. Bean and the firebox lid hook I made myself with the fancy “birdcage” handle.
Some years I have cooked our Thanksgiving feast entirely on the wood stove. This is to a certain extent for sentimental reasons. I recall with excessive mushiness Paul’s and my first Thanksgiving together in 1988; I produced a very acceptable turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, cranberry bread and chocolate cream pie in and on this stove. He hauled his boat. I remember him driving up the road pulling the Sea Duck on her cradle behind the 1961 International tractor. That tractor was older than I was. Anyway, ours is not a cute stove, but a Tyrolean workhorse, a minimalist cube of white enamel with little chrome and no filigree, but with a large oven that does not tend to burn gingerbread. You cannot get parts. We needed a grate a couple of years ago; some creative hacksaw work resulted in a suitable replacement made from the grate from another brand of stove, but we went in search of a foundry that would take on a small special order. Oddly enough, we found one, over in East Wakefield, New Hampshire.
We burn free spruce (well-dried, to be safe, so spare me the usual spruce-is-no-good lecture).
I do not order firewood. Wood delivered from the mainland, while a reasonable option for a few, is more or less gold-plated by the time it gets to this island. I will admit we do not burn what you call “the good stuff.” We burn free spruce (well dried, to be safe, so spare me the usual spruce-is-no-good lecture). Our firewood comes from clearing power lines, or storm damage, or the natural tree mortality with which we are surrounded. Many of this island’s spruces are of similar age, that estimated to be roughly 60 years, forest resulting from the “field weeds” of around the time the island population shrank and nobody was keeping livestock anymore. That six or seven decades is about the natural lifespan of a black spruce. The bark beetle doesn’t help, and neither does the wind. There is very little hardwood on the island, but when we can get an apple tree into the woodpile, or anything else that good, we save it for best. I work from home, so I can toss another stick in every 20 minutes if I have to. Buy wood? I don’t think so.
Our first fire included a lot of chicken bones from the freezer. All summer long, unless somebody should be making a convenient trip to some unvisited cove soon, meat trimmings and bones had nowhere to go. You cannot just toss such stuff in the kitchen trash when it’ll be weeks before a trip to the transfer station. Things get more than a bit unpleasant, particularly in the warmer weather. I can’t compost them because they’ll attract critters, and the wood stove is completely transformed into a bakery countertop for the season, so even a little fire for an hour on a rainy morning isn’t an option. The chicken bones pile up in the freezer. Our first fire smelled like the parking lot of the KFC.
The next day I got to work sawing up random yard scrap. There is all manner of burnable detritus around here; it cannot be helped. I don’t know why. Not everybody has my yard issues. At any rate, I got out the bow saw and cut up weathered oak trap runners, which assorted children brought up from the beach, children of the age to need to whack the bushes as they stroll. Children will not walk far without a picking up a stick. I sawed up “plungerball” sticks, the athletic equipment from the field hockey/lacrosse/softball hybrid the island kids made up years ago, these things still surfacing now and then, here and there. I sawed up driftwood hiking staffs that summer folks have forgotten outside the bakery here. I sawed up random furniture parts and crating, as my husband is loath to “throw away” anything “with heat in it.” Besides, what means “throw away” around here? I’m supposed to haul it to the Rockland recycling facility along with the milk jugs and the junk mail? I hardly think so.
So I sawed up busted shovel handles and salvaged window trim and beach treasures and drawer runners. Why do we have all this stuff anyway? I sawed up two-by-fours left from packing dunnage, I sawed up branches, and I sawed up wooden parts the original use of which I cannot begin to speculate upon. One could nearly accuse me of going on a cleaning spree.
After the little stuff was all sawed to fit this Austrian treasure’s very short firebox, it was on to some splitting. Paul splits most of the wood with a quite excellent 220-volt electric wood splitter, but I wished to make the point to him, busy this week winterizing some 30-odd summer places, that he doesn’t have to do it all. I love the smell of wood, too. Fact is, I like splitting wood with an ax.
Well, I usually do. It’s a great feeling when the wood comes apart with a nicely-placed ax blow, and the sound of the just-right pieces tinking and chunking onto the pile is genuinely satisfying. Of course, as anybody who has done this can attest, life, not to mention splitting wood, is not always quite so uncomplicated. When a particular piece of wood really resists I work in fear that a neighbor will stop by and kibitz or even, in this case, that a low-flying mail-plane pilot will observe my hapless whacking. Such defiant wood is exactly what I got myself into this time, a round maybe 16 inches across and a foot thick.
I asked myself — probably out loud — just what the hell was holding this slice of spruce tree together? It sure looked like it should split without difficulty. I could hear, with each blow, that it is splitting, and yet… nothing. Time goes by. Whack. Whack.
In the inimitable words of Bugs Bunny, “Of course you realize, dis means war!”
When this cylindrical slice of spruce tree comes apart, I recall thinking, it’ll probably go like a chocolate-orange from a Christmas stocking, with pieces falling in every direction at once. I bash and I beat. How is it possible that this pathetic bit of spruce can absorb all these blows? The outside is in shreds and my hands are not far behind. It certainly sounds like it is full of splits, but the wood will not surrender. I may not be very big (although like any red-blooded American female I of course wish I were smaller — except at times like this) but I do not, excuse me, split wood like a girl. This is full-on, overhead, long-handled, if-this-ax-head-comes-off-somebody across the street is gonna-die ax-swinging work, and somehow it ain’t enough. No, I am not landing blows helplessly into the middle; I know better. No, I am not choking up on the handle. I have done this before. What is in the middle of this piece of wood — rebar? It feels as though it is reinforced with marine epoxy and extra staples. Whatever; the middle piece is going right, straight into the fire. I have no doubt it’ll make a lot of heat.
By time I lugged the wood into the house, in suitable pieces, my fingers were too wobbly to type. I ripped open an existing blister, got a start on another one, and took a splinter off the ax handle. Hmph. This is not my ax. It is longer than I’m used to and the handle is straighter and it is, argh, fiberglass. I always had a Snow and Nealley “Our Best Ax,” hearkening to the days when Bangor was every logger’s supplier. Years ago, when I worked at Passmore Lumber (now EBS) on the Camden-Rockport line, down by the arch on Union Street, I ordered every size of ax they had on the employee discount. I got a good regular-size ax, and also a Hudson’s Bay ax for kindling and an Estwing hatchet. Somewhere I still have that ax; better have a look around.
A couple of thoughts: split wood because you want to, not just when you have to. Don’t do it when anybody’s watching as that’ll nearly guarantee a hidden knot or a seriously gnarly bit. Use your own ax.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus.
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