Firewood is never just wood

Bill Graham

Bill Graham

If you’re the type of person who enjoys the aesthetics and memories that go with placing a stick of wood in the fireplace or the stove, stock up on dry kindling. This is your kind of winter, and more winter is coming.

Surprise, surprise — weather forecasters say there’s a chance of snow this weekend. Gone are lamentations from past years that the kids who got sleds for Christmas have no snow to slide on. As I write this, even after a few days with rain, the white stuff from the last three snows lingers in my yard.

We are 10.5 inches above normal for snowfall this winter. That’s according to the National Weather Service as measured at the Kansas City International Airport in the heart of Platte County. It’s possible that Platte City and places to the north have had even more snow. Keep those shovels handy. TV forecasters remind us that March often brings us the most snow.

There’s an upside, though, if you like to make firewood and use it at your leisure. There’s nothing like a good snowstorm to make striking a match and watching a blaze rise in a fireplace to make you feel like a self-sufficient survivor of winter.

Plus, I never watch flames licking at a chunk of walnut or locust without thinking about how it came to be in my wood pile. I think about life’s lessons in how to make wood, and the family or friends I’ve shared that adventure with.

I learned fire is hot the hard way. When I was four or five years old, my grandparents heated their old farmhouse with a parlor wood stove. “Don’t touch that stove,” I was told, before the grownups retired to the kitchen for coffee. But a beautiful orange light coming through the mica glass windows on the stove door danced in enchanting fashion. I couldn’t resist touching the color.


Not but a few years after, I was allowed to accompany my grandfather to “the woods” to make firewood. A five-acre oak and hickory woodlot on the corner of the 80-acre farm was to me the endless forest primeval. Grandpa worked with saw and ax. I climbed on an old partially fallen tree trunk. We got in a snowball fight. I can still remember his laugh and my boyhood joy. For years after I would go find that tree trunk spot. I watched the slow decay of the log that I’d climbed on until it was gone to soil.

My father’s job at the same age had been to pick up wood chips left from making cord wood with an ax or a splitting maul. His grandmother used the chips as kindling for the wood-fired kitchen stove. He grew up and graduated to using a crosscut saw with his brother to transform trees to logs and logs to cord wood.

Dad made sure that my brothers and I knew how to use a crosscut saw, how to trim limbs off a felled tree with an ax, and how to sharpen a double bit ax. You keep one side of the double bit ax a little sharp but use it to chop roots around rocks or similar tough stuff that easily dulls an edge. But you keep the other side razor sharp and only use it for chopping down trees or serious limb lopping. That’s handy stuff for me to know these days, such as when I get a chain saw pinched in a tree and have to chop it out.

Firewood is never just wood to the person who makes it. Someone taught them how. And the work can be memorable.

I’m burning mostly thorny locust this winter. I gazed at that tree in the upper backyard for a decade, decrying the tire punching thorns and wondering how big a woodpile it would make. It was two trees grown together at the base, a bit tricky to cut down when I felled it a year ago. Being a weekend warrior and working alone, it took a few weeks for me to get it cut into firewood and stacked.

This past July and August, on evening walks with greenery everywhere and temperatures in the 90s, I’d pass by two stacks of locust and ponder which pieces needed splitting and which were ready to burn. Winter will come, I thought, and this woodpile is ready. Sure enough, the season when Platte County is usually beige or brown is upon us. Except this winter, starting with a blizzard in mid-November, we’ve had a white world outside on many days.

So let it snow some more. The woodpile is nearing ground level, but it will last until April and spring. Nothing warms bones and memories like hot coals glowing blue, red, and orange.