When I was in primary and secondary school, our family heated our home in Columbus, Nebraska with a wood burning stove. My grandfather Raymond would deliver logs from the timber on our farm in Iowa. He drove eight hours round trip, two or three times each year. This was his gift to us, fuel prepared by his own hands in order that we could heat our home at a reduced bill.
My job was to check the stove when I returned from school, as I was usually home before my brother Jae or my parents. I removed the ashes if the fire was out, added wood and stoked the flames. We kept a pot of spiced cider made from unfiltered apple cider, one or two slices of an orange, a tea bag, cinnamon and cloves. The aroma filled the house, from the basement where the stove was held, to the entire upper floor.
I learned that when the stove reached 600 degrees Fahrenheit water droplets no longer boiled away, rather, they bounced around the surface of the stove, retaining their full form. They could even be guided by my blowing on them. After a half dozen, eight, or even ten seconds they absorbed too much heat, the invisible layer which kept them isolated no longer a protective barrier. They stalled and vaporised. I was fascinated by this process, adding salt or sugar to learn if I could increase the time they would survive the tremendous heat. But all I accomplished in my experiments was leaving stains on the matte black stove paint.
Each winter weekend my father would head into the backyard to chop wood. As a boy, I recall him being quite strong, with arms the diameter of the logs he was about to take on. Yet in a recent conversation, my father reminded me that the world looks quite a bit bigger when we are small, our admiration exaggerating further still.
I recall his boots breaking the surface of the hard, icy mid-Western snow. The sound of the axe neatly slicing a log in two was such that I knew, even if turned the other way, if the cut was clean. I stood the logs, one by one on the chopping block, a large diameter stump which received the blade when my father cut through.
For wood too wide for an axe, my father used a sledge hammer to drive a steel spike deep into the grain. The sledge hammer raised overhead drove the spike out the other side. The crack of the wood was a telling sign that the placement of the blade or spike was just right, or if it would jam. We’d stack the split wood on the side of the house or in the garage, carrying an arm full each into the basement to place on the brick flooring which supported the stove.
This past week, here at the Buffalo Peak Ranch, a hint of winter arrived. Nights in the low thirties give way to crisp mornings and afternoons whose warmth is waning. Three evenings last week I maintained the wood burning stove into the night, sleeping on the futon just across from the source of heat. Sometimes I wake in the early AM to stoke the flames, adding three or four more logs, then crawl back into bed.
I am now returned to chopping wood as I was three years prior. Again, I am the one driving the blade into the grain, hoping for the CRACK! and two or three pieces to fall to the sides. As with tending to a garden, repairing furniture, and baking bread, splitting wood with an axe is wonderfully gratifying. It is a workout and a meditation combined, for one must choose the end and the approach at the same time. Avoid the knots! Gage the distance. Focus on the blade arriving to the bottom side and bring it through. A slight twist can provide additional kinetic energy to bring the blade home, or send it glancing, shaving only the bark from the outside.
In just one hour I can prepare ample wood to heat the cabin for a few days. An afternoon of work and I am set for a week. What adds to my reward is this is a renewable resource, if managed properly. Nearly every gram of the mass of wood is sunlight captured, photons from a distant nuclear furnace, stored as fuel. The electromagnetic radiation coupled with water, carbon, and nutrients from the soil is given a second chance to provide warmth, on this planet. The ultimately re-use, recycle.