By Susan Belsinger
I love trees. They are a life-long study for me. When I was a child growing up in red-brick rowhouses in Baltimore, ours was the only postage-stamp backyard on the block with a tree. It was a maple, and the samaras fascinated me. We called them whirligigs or helicopters and threw them up in the air and watched them spiral downwards. Many a kid climbed that tree and somehow, I managed to drag the lid of an old wooden toy box up there and nail it down so I had a tree fort—only two small children were able to sit upon it.
The property that I have lived on for the past 40 years or so has lots of trees, and I walk in the woods nearly every day, communing with nature and for exercise—it is my daily solace. I tend to walk in the late afternoon, often just before dusk—my favorite time of day. This way, I get to hear the honking of the Canada geese long before I see them and stop to watch them fly over—something I will never tire of.
Our woods are mostly Northeastern deciduous trees that slope down to the Cattail River. Down along the river’s edge there are a lot of shaggy-barked river birch, also some really big sycamores. There are quite a few types of large old oaks, as well as hickory and maple trees, with locust and cherry amongst them and sassafras and Osage orange along the wood’s edge. The understory consists of a healthy population of spicebush, with wild rose, honeysuckle, brambles, occasional viburnum, dogwood, and holly.
I mostly walk the deer trails, and I sometimes take my pruners with me to whack back woody growth and brambles that encroach the path. The adjoining neighbor’s farm has many horse trails, so there are different options for my daily woods walk. Heading back uphill from any direction, I pass through or by the garden where there is a large stand of bamboo, where our songbirds spend the night. As the sun sets, they flit about and flock to this multi-complex to roost, and I take great delight in the cacophony of evensong.
Although I grew up as a city kid, I’ve been a country gal for a long while. In order to build this house, the woods needed to be cleared to make a place for it. It is a passive solar house, however the woodstove is the main source of heat. In the winter, it is a 24/7 job; it seems that wood chores are never-ending.
“Miraculous powers and marvelous activities—drawing water and hewing wood”
—P’ang Yun, Buddhist monk, 9th century
Fortunately, we have quite a bit of woods and often use downed trees that are easy to get to. Sometimes we cut down old or dead wood or trees that just need removing. Though they are necessary tools, I personally don’t use a chainsaw—I wait until that part of hewing wood is complete, and then I’m in for the long haul. There is the picking up of the cut logs and loading them into the wheelbarrow and wheeling them to the woodpile, if they need to age, or to the back porch, if they are dry enough to burn. There are many locations where it is not possible to use the wheelbarrow, and each log has to be carried out to a clearing. There is time during all of this back-and-forthing to enjoy the woods; resting and reflecting between trips, I find it can be meditative.
Since the ancient tractor is not running, we’ve got an old beat-up jeep that has become the farm wagon. With the seats folded down, it can hold a surprising amount of wood. Three rows from floor to ceiling is over half a cord of wood. That’s how we measure wood here, in Maryland, and states north of here. Down South, they deal with firewood in ricks.
Apparently, a rick of firewood is not a consistent measurement, and it varies from place to place—so one does not know exactly how much firewood they are actually getting, according to the website Firewood-For-Life (https://www.firewood-for-life.com/rick-of-firewood.html). They state: “The length of the logs dictates how much wood you get. Generally speaking, if the logs are cut 16 inches long and are stacked 4 feet high by 8 feet long, a rick will be 1/3 of a cord. If these same logs were cut 24 inches long, the rick would equal 1/2 cord.”
Regardless of measurement, once the logs are cut into stove-size lengths and then split, they have to be picked up and put in the jeep, tractor wagon, wheelbarrow, whatever, to transport them to where they will be stacked. I can no longer push a full wheelbarrow—I can only fill it about halfway. (It is good to know one’s limitations, and I have become thoughtful about this. I like it when the strong, young adults are available to help with this task.)
Recently, I tried to move an overfull wheelbarrow, which was on an incline—I knew it was going to topple over—and so I let go just as it happened; however, I was still moving with the momentum, and so down I went. Coincidentally, just the night before, I was reading a section in Twyla Tharp’s book, Keep it Moving, and she was discussing the best way to fall: don’t fight it—don’t try to stop it by putting out your hand—just go with it. And that is exactly what I did. Fortunately, I had on many layers of clothing, so when I landed on the leaf-covered forest floor, I wasn’t hurt at all. The hardest part was getting up: think turtle on their back + bundled up like the Pillsbury doughboy = LOL.
What I have learned in my “cronedom” is to be more thoughtful…of my body and my surroundings. When working in the woods, there are all sorts of vines and stumps to trip over (especially when my arms are full) and branches and twigs to poke me, not to mention brambles that grab my clothes, hair, and more than once, have taken off my hat! Being mindful of how to bend—taking the weight in the knees rather than straining the back—gotta’ look out for these poor old aching knees.
Each log has to be handled again to unload them and stack them in the yard or on the porch. The back porch can hold a cord of wood, though it is five steps up and down with each armload of wood. You’d think I’d have abs of steel with all of this bending and lifting…not….I’ve still got a soft Botticelli belly, most likely due to age, gravity, my penchant for cooking good food, and enjoyment of a cold beer or libation after a hard day of wood-working.
There is an art to stacking wood. In a freestanding pile, the ends have to be built up in order to hold the wood. They have to be sturdy and not wobbly, and the wood has to be stacked neatly, so the whole pile won’t fall over with a 30-mile an hour wind gust (yes, it has happened). The back porch stacks are ones that can be burned right away, and generally, there is a box or bucket of kindling nearby. All stacks are covered along the top with tarps to keep the rain and snow from soaking them.
Every day, the wood box inside next to the stove needs to be filled—it is big enough to hold enough wood for about a 24-hour period. While most house members use a big canvas log-carrier bag, I tend to carry three or four logs in at a time in my arms. It takes me about ten trips to fill the wood box, whereas it takes the others only three or four trips with a full bag. Slow and steady does the trick. And then there is the stoking of the stove, which is a science in itself. First off, all types of wood burn differently: some are dense, some burn very hot, and some shoot sparks. The dryness or wetness of the wood is another factor. Oftentimes, if I am busy cooking or writing, I don’t think of loading the stove, and it comes close to going out. Then, I have to use smaller pieces of wood to get it going again. So, having an assortment of sizes matters.
I am the last to go to bed, and so I stoke the stove full and then turn the vents down to just the right place so that the stove will burn all night. I know the place where the vents catch just a bit and know to back off just a half turn—I know it by feel and by the sound—it is finding the sweet spot so that the stove will have hot coals for the first one up in the morning to tend. And then the vents are opened up; the coals are stirred and brought forward; smaller pieces of wood are added and then larger ones; and the house gets toasty. A kettle of water atop the stove gets filled every time the stove gets filled to keep some moisture in the air, since wood stoves are so drying. The bowl of bread dough covered with a damp towel is set to rise on a stool alongside the stove; soup pots are reheated on the stove; and dinner plates or bowls are placed on top to warm. Guests tend to gravitate toward the stove and stand nearby to soak in the warmth, turning from front to back to warm both sides. Cats and dogs lay so close sometimes, you’d think it would boil their brains! There is nothing like the warmth or smell of a wood stove.
I am thankful for the trees, that I am able to be outside and hew wood, and keep the home fires burning. And, I am especially grateful at the end of the day to draw a hot bath, adding Epsom salts and fragrant and therapeutic essential oils, to soak my body in after a day of wood work.
Photo Credits: 1) Snow-covered trees (C. Moore); 2) Tree canopy in fall (C. Moore); 3) Wood stove (Angela Magnan); 4) Pile of chopped wood (Susan Belsinger); 5) Wheelbarrow full of chopped wood destined for wood stove (Susan Belsinger); 6) Stacked wood on author’s porch (Susan Belsinger); 7) Author carrying load of wood (Susan Belsinger); 8) Bath tub scene (Creative Commons, swister_p).
Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing, or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist,” Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste, and sight.
Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of The Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 – 2020). Her latest publication, Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press), co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker, is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com.