My Pile: Cutting the Cord

Each fall, I gather a new mass of stored carbon in the backyard. No, not my pile, though it is also assembled from similarly recycled organic bits begged and borrowed and roughly matches the compost heap in both weight and effort. It’s wood for my fireplace.

From a purely environmental standpoint, it’s hard for me to justify burning through a cord or so of firewood each winter. Even the best firewood is relatively inefficient as a heat source, and all that smoke going up the chimney is far from benign. In fact, let me be clear on that last point:

“The smoke from wood burning is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles (also called particle pollution, particulate matter, or PM),” I read on the EPA website. “These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. In addition to particle pollution, wood smoke contains several toxic harmful air pollutants including: benzene, formaldhyde, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).”

“Smoke may smell good, but it’s not good for you. Both short- and long-term exposures to particle pollution from wood smoke have been linked to a variety of health effects. Short-term exposures to particles (hours or days) can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. Long-term exposures (months or years) have been associated with problems such as reduced lung function and the development of chronic bronchitis—and even premature death. Some studies also suggest that long-term PM 2.5 exposures may be linked to cancer and to harmful developmental and reproductive effects, such as infant mortality and low birth weight.”

Talk about throwing cold water on a warm and cozy winter’s fire… Even an article on, a website devoted to promoting wood heat, includes some major caveats: 

“Despite its considerable advantages, fuelwood is not a good solution for all households to the problems of high home heating costs and global warming. Fuelwood is not a suitable energy source in all locations, such as densely-populated urban areas, because its air emissions tend to be higher than other options, and the air is already burdened with pollution from industry and transportation. A winter’s supply of wood takes up a lot of space, and the price of firewood in urban areas is normally too high to achieve savings. Successful heating with wood also requires a level of physical fitness and the learning of a special set of skills. Clearly, wood heating is not for everyone,” I read in “The Argument In Favor Of Wood Heating.”

Still, there’s a case to be made for what environmental writer Marc Gunther  cites as “by far the most popular form of renewable energy used at home.”

“It’s a low-cost and low-carbon way to heat homes. It’s a ‘green’ technology that appeals to poor and working class people. And, because gathering and distributing wood is labor intensive,  it generates economic activity,” Gunther argues in “A Renewable Energy Technology that Gets No Respect.”

I moved into my two-bedroom cottage-style home a decade ago with my son, then 5. The main room had a small, narrow fireplace rimmed with ornate, cast-iron trim. It looked like it was designed to burn coal, and I considered it more of a decorative element than heat source. No doubt it hadn’t been used in decades, and in fact when I soon had to repair the Rube Goldberg fuel-oil furnace tucked into the closet-like crawl space tucked behind the chimney, I found that the furnace had been routed to vent exhaust up the flue.

It was only years later, after the furnace finally crapped out and I replaced it and the similarly ancient water heater with a much more efficient on-demand system, powered by natural gas, that I called in a chimney sweep to assess whether the fireplace could be used. My son had grown old enough for me to relax as a worry-wart dad, and I was pining to add some warmth and rustic charm to our living room. Besides, back-to-back stormy seasons, including Superstorm Sandy, had produced both a windfall of trees and a nagging fear of a loss of power over some cold, dark nights.

With a new cap and damper plus a plugged vent hole and sturdy new screen, my fireplace was back in business. The narrow but deep firebox with its cast-iron surround drew wonderfully and gave off blasts of heat that radiated across the living room. The long neglected fireplace has since become the true heart and hearth of our home.

Environmental qualms aside, the locavore in me likes the idea of burning wood gathered from nearby. There may be some cost savings, in terms of keeping the thermostat down, which appeals to my thrifty yankee spirit. The sensualist seeks the burn on the back of my legs, the pop and crackle in the air and the dance of flickering flames. I like everything about a fire, from constructing it just so to stoking and tending it through the night.

A fire is something special to gather around and keep company with; a magical presence in the room. A home fire sustains a gardener’s tinkering spirit the winter long. “To poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world,” said Charles Dudley Warner. (A close friend of Mark Twain, Warner also had a way with words; he’s the fellow who also said “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” andPolitics makes strange bedfellows.” To have listened in on a fireside chat between those two!)

This affinity to fire may help explain why I smoked cigarettes for many years. It’s an addiction, I guess.

A cozy fire in the well used and loved fireplace.

Over the past five years, I haven’t had to pay for firewood, unless you count the cost of having several fallen or damaged maples taken down and chopped up by those I hire to scale trees with ropes and belts and chainsaws. Owning a chain saw is a manly aspiration I’ve always found reason not to fulfill.

Still, I very much like the idea of using every bit of a tree that has grown in my backyard, from adding its leaves and seeds to my pile, to spreading its chipped up limbs as mulch to the garden beds, to burning its sawed up and split logs in the fireplace. The wood ash that remains is sprinkled across the lawn and garden beds and my pile. The stumps, well, I just have to live with those until they rot back into the ground, like the bones of a bison fully consumed by a band of Plains Indians.

I’ve carted home cast-off logs of oak left by the utility crews working up and down the street. I’ve also helped myself to several loads of lumber from neighbors who have had treework done and have no need for firewood. In these parts, firewood is free for the taking, if you know where to source it and have the means to schlepp it home. My fireplace is more narrow than most, so I have to cherry pick logs of no more than 18 inches long, shorter than what most commercial firewood suppliers make.

Over the summer, I’ve assembled a stack of wood that stretches across the back of the tool shed and as high as I can sling them. Burning two or three fires a week, I figure I consume a little more than a cord of wood a season, starting around the first frost of the year in mid to late October and lasting until the final frost, sometime in late April, or when I run out of logs, which happened this past spring, a few chilly nights too soon.

I’ve long been intrigued by the word “cord,” used to define the size of a stack of firewood. Like peck or rod or even foot, it harkons back to an age about which we now have only a passing familiarity. Cord is generally meant to define a “racked and well stowed” wood pile that is four feet wide, four feet deep and eight feet long. It’s based on the use of a string or rope to define it. Whose string exactly is long lost to history, but I rather like how this man-made unit has stood the test of time. If you want a more precise measurement, figure on a volume of 128 cubic feet, says Wikipedia, or for a comparison, it’s calculated that a cord of seasoned oak, with its 22.1 million British thermal units (BTUs), has the heating equivalent of 159 gallons of fuel oil.

Now is the time to cleave these whole logs into slivered pieces and to stack them in sturdy rows against the shed and beside my pile. It’s a process, an exercise that’s near a sport, that I thoroughly enjoy. And though it took me a good long while before I could get myself to hand off the big-boy axe to my teenage son, chopping wood has also become a family enterprise. Together, we make a good team, taking turns with the maul, splitting wedge and axe to turn a whole log into fractionalized pieces in a few, well-measured strokes. This good ol-fashioned manual labor strikes my son as thoroughly exotic. It’s also a contest between old man and young buck; you can almost see the testosterone cursing up from the steel bit and wood handle into his sinewy young arms. I like being a father who has taught his son how to chop wood. Better yet, he still has all is toes.

I also like splitting the work. As Henry Ford said, “Cut your own wood and it warms you twice.”

Splitting and stacking firewood for the winter while my pile the drop of autumn leaves.

In addition to learning how best to chop wood — figuring out the grain and the knots and gauging the force of the blow needed — there’s some woods wisdom to be gleaned from carving up a log. These past few seasons, ash has been in abundant supply, courtesy of the emerald ash borer. An ash log is light and straight-grained and splits like a dream; there’s a reason it’s long been favored by baseball sluggers and why I give the ash to my son. I can talk baseball while he splits wood like a hall-of-famer.

“Although ash may produce slightly lower BTU’s than oak or sugar maple, it’s a popular firewood choice for many people,” I read on “Ash is known for splitting very easy and having a low moisture content. This allows the tree to be safely used immediately after harvesting.”

Beech is a breeze to split, and burns bright and fast. The largest log I hauled home was a stout log of beech, two feet in diameter, which cleaved off into more than 40 pieces of firewood; two full evening’s worth. Birch is also nicely spittable, and we can tell when we’ve got a piece of black birch by the Wrigley spearmint gum aroma of its bark. I have a hard time telling my oaks apart, but when we split a piece of white oak, the grain looks just like the kitchen floor of a new McMansion.

Cutting wood benefits my pile, indirectly. When chopping a scavenged log, most of the time the bark cleaves from the wood. Some I use for kindling, but much of it I lay down as flat sections behind my pile, which backs up against what amounts to a drainage ditch for the low back end of the property.

The bark makes a sturdy, if temporary, flooring for me to stand on when I work my pile. The curved outer hide is a no-slip surface for my work shoes. The domed paneling laid end to end allows for the run-off to pass underneath, and as it rots in place I imagine the row upon row of small vaulted ceilings gives comfort to all manner of creatures. I tread softly upon them, for fear of squishing a rare native salamander or newt.

The stack of firewood is my pile’s doppelganger. They’re both pit stops for assembled loads of energy-rich carbon cycling through the circuit of life. One is on the fast track and will soon go up in smoke. Poof. Crash and burn.

My pile is taking the long way around the carbon cycle, a trip with a more lasting reward. Its stores of carbon and other turbocharged organic amendments and minerals are first going to ground, where they will dissipate over time before making their way back skyward, rising toward the sun, whether as a blade of grass, burp of an earthworm or, once more, first as a soaring tree then, burning bright, a crackling fire. After all, “ashes to ashes” covers a lot of ground.