Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Take, Heat, This Is My Body

“You know,” Larry said, “Episcopalians are funny about bishops.” Yes, I have noticed this. A couple weeks before the Bishop of Vermont was to visit our church, the small signs were about—proud announcements from the priest, invitations to a Dinner With the Bishop, that sort of thing. Episcopalians, when they aren’t upset about their bishops, can be rather giddy about them.

Well, I have not made my peace with those shepherd’s crooks the bishops sport when they smile for the camera; otherwise, I like the bishops just fine. I like the bishop of Vermont very much. I like the presiding bishop. And we are blessed to have Gene Robinson as our bishop neighbor in New Hampshire. His choice of a Palestinian shepherd’s crook for his crosier goes a long way to cutting the dork-factor I feel about those things. But I wouldn’t exactly say a visitation from a bishop gets me excited. Interested, yes. Excited, not really.

A cool truck is a different matter. While I never even noticed bishops until recently, I have always had a thing for trucks. When I was three I was bonkers for the garbage truck. My earliest memory of urgency is of abandoning the breakfast table to get a glimpse of it. And later, at my dad’s house, I remember at least once following the garbage truck around the block to achieve more sustained viewing satisfaction.

I don’t love all trucks, especially not the I’m-not-a-man-without-my-gas-guzzling-useless-truck trucks. But when the snow is deep I drag a chair to a window and watch our neighbor plow the driveway clear. If I can’t rise from my resting place to see what rattling beast passes the house, I feel a little tense from the deprivation until the sound passes away. And, I confess, the annual visitation from Brailey’s Firewood and Trucking is a thrill. It comes and goes as quickly as a communion wafer and a sip of wine.

Firewood claims its own liturgy and calendar. Summer is Advent, the season of preparation. Winter has barely slipped behind us before the cold is little more than an arm’s length ahead. “It is hard to believe,” Larry says, “that a few months ago I was climbing down piles of snow to get to the wood.” He called it his wood-mine this winter. The five steps out the door were disappeared under snow because he didn’t shovel them clear. He stepped out and up onto the mound, then descended the white slope to retrieve firewood at true ground level. But all that snow and cold seems implausible to our summer minds. Our world is a riot of green. We act on faith that winter will come again.

The division of labor is simple. I’m an invalid, but I have my uses. I order the wood; I write the check; I watch Larry do everything else.

Except this year. Larry was in the shower when the truck arrived. The hurrying about to greet, direct, pay, and thank fell to feeble me. Plus snapping a few images for my blog. “Just don’t take a picture of me,” Bernie said, “I haven’t shaved yet.” I assured him, with regret, that he would not be visible. (That is his assistant in the picture.)

Firewood is sold by the cord, a measurement of approximate volume—four feet high, four feet wide, eight feet long. Bernie’s truck holds one and a half cords. These days we buy two loads. It’s like receiving communion from a visiting bishop twice in one day, only really massive and we have to pay. The price this year was $200 per cord. Assuming we use the full three cords, that’s $600 to keep us cozy for nine months—heavy heating in December through March and lighter on either end. Six hundred dollars is a figure to be proud of in Vermont, and let me tell you, we are proud. We are also excessively pleased with every efficiency measure we have taken. Like praying without ceasing, we celebrate them ad infinitum.

We buy “green” firewood from freshly cut trees; that is the cheapest and most common way to buy it. It doesn’t actually look green. It looks sort of orange. As it dries, it grays. And it should be dried, or seasoned, before burned. The atmosphere takes care of that: stack it, cover it, give it time. We buy our wood a year in advance. By the time we burn it, it’s dry. Good thing, because the drier the wood the more efficient the fires—and the cleaner the chimney. Water is one of the primary ingredients in the formation of creosote, the uncombusted gunk that builds up in a chimney and burns in chimney fires. We don’t want a chimney fire, so we keep the chimney clean.

The first ritual, however, after the visitation of Brailey’s Firewood and Trucking is not to stack the wood but to breathe and admire it. The smell is sweet and pungent, particularly the oak, and Larry is always sure to get some right up his nose. Proper firewood, around here anyway, is all hardwood: oak, maple, beech, ash, yellow birch. That may sound like we are burning trees that could be used to make furniture or fine lumber, but we aren’t.

A forest these days has to be well managed to produce high-quality timber for those purposes. The trees need to be straight, wide, and without knots or disease. A really good forester will manage a forest for many things, including wildlife and aesthetics, but a lot of small, crooked, funky, knotted, and misplaced specimens must be taken out to favor the ones with cash potential. Those culled trees have little market value except to us and our kind. Selling it as firewood doesn’t turn a profit for the landowner, but it defrays some of the cost of logging those trees. Profits, if they come at all, are longer-term. Those favored trees which have been released from competition will grow fatter, taller, faster.

After contemplating the new mounds of wood with our noses and eyes, we speculate as to whether the wood will fit into the available stacking space, a fun but nearly pointless occupation—the only way to find out is to stack it. Larry does the work in dashes over several weeks. I often sit by in a chair watching him and fretting about things like the lack of circulating air space between stacks, whether Larry is working too hard, and if his end stacks are solid enough.

The end stacks are important. We are free-form wood stackers as we don’t have a shed or other built structure in which to put the wood. Larry picks out straight, even pieces from the pile and builds a structure at each end of each rank by laying three pieces one direction and then three pieces perpendicular to those on top of them, alternating to the full height of the rank. If the pieces are chosen and arranged carefully, they make solid supports between which the rest of the wood can pile up.

Last winter we started burning with the wood nearest the back door. This year we will stack the new wood there and burn from the other end. The oldest wood will burn first, and any wood we burn this year from the new pile will have had many months to dry. As the wood pile is between the house and the hillside, there’s no room to dump the new load near where it will be stacked, hence our dependence on and great affection for the miracle that is the wheelbarrow. Larry likes to say that he moves these heaps by hand four times: out of the mound into the wheelbarrow, out of the wheelbarrow into the pile, out of the pile into the house onto the floor next to the wood stove, off of the floor and into the stove. Heating with wood is light on the purse, heavy on labor.

Some of the wood must be split fine as well. Chopping or cutting wood breaks the fibers; splitting wood divides them. The one shortens the wood, the other thins it. Chopping isn’t really done much anymore, actually. Axe-work is inefficient. The logs are cut to a usable length with a chainsaw or a saw; a mechanical splitter divides them into smaller pieces. Then Bernie dumps the resulting perfection in our yard—three cords green hardwood, cut and split.

But to build a fire Larry needs smaller splits; they light and burn more easily. He used to split wood by hand each winter morning—a hard ritual right out of bed. The house is cold, the snow is deep, the world is still rather dark. Stand a straight piece on the block, raise the maul high, aim for the center, come down with force. Then stand the resulting pieces, each in turn, and do the same again. These days Larry makes a stash of splits in the summer. He piles them behind the chimney and extends his supply through the winter with small logs and large splinters from the main pile.

When the stacking’s complete and the wood snug under weighted sheets of metal, Larry likes to stand at the door on rainy days to watch the water run off the makeshift roof, carefully tilted and shingled. “Look at that,” he always says. “Look at all that water. It can’t get at my wood. It can’t get at it. Heh!” There’s a final mess of scraps in the driveway. Larry rakes them up, and the summer wood-work is done.

How odd it is, Larry will comment at least once in the summer, that he walks past the woodstove scores of times not even thinking about it. But when the cold comes it will be his frequent, happy preoccupation to keep the fire going and the house warm. You know, Vermonters are funny about their firewood. We love it.

A couple weeks ago Larry and I attended a Sunday service at Weston Priory for the first time. A few folksy monks with guitars led a whole bunch of folksy non-monks in singin’ and prayin’. I felt my usual mix of alienation and sweetness. One lyric snagged my attention; during communion we sang, again and again, “You are the bread and the table.”

The table?

If God is the bread, the wine, and the table, presumably of wood, then God is also the three cords of green firewood, cut and split. Take, heat, this is my body which is given for you. The Eucharist, to me, means that the very substance of the world is the body of grace. We eat it, drink it, piss it, breathe it. We are inseparable from it. Love these atoms; this material body matters.

Our summer wood stacking is done. Alleluia, alleluia.


  1. Beautiful, beautiful.

    I hope you are now snug and enjoying the fruits of your summer's work.

  2. Thanks, Amna. Yes, the cozy-ness factor of heating with wood is in full enjoyment here. I'm glad to see this piece still gets an occasional reader.

    Good luck on your dissertation; I see from your blog you are in the final stages.


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