21 Nov A Wood Fire
There’s something about a wood fire.
Perhaps it’s the crackle and spit of the logs as they begin to take. The awesome fury of the main burn. The orange glow of the embers as the chemistry of the fire takes its course.
Or maybe it’s the pleasing nature of the fire-making process itself. The feel of cured birch, fir and larch as you gather it from the stack. The arrangement of the fire’s constituents, just so, with paper, kindling and starter logs. The magic moment when you tickle the structure with the flame of a match and the fire begins to take.
Or even the skill required to get it just right. The entire process of burning wood might be primal in its provenance, but it also requires a modicum of experience and knowledge no longer much valued in a world of thermostats, switches and house-controlling apps.
With a wood fire there is none of the malodorous gasiness of a propane or natural gas appliance. Or the unforgiving aridness of an electric space heater.
Whatever it is, burning wood to make heat is an essential part of our lives here at the ranch. We have seven wood-burning stoves – one in the main house, one in the sauna, and five in the cabins.
Then there is the campfire by the river that has witnessed many a happy gathering of guests, soulful last-night conversations, and even the occasional sing-song accompanied by one of the house guitarists.
But all these, of course, need fuel. And it is this time of year – between when the bears head up into hibernation and the snow arrives in earnest – that we set aside for the making of firewood.
The production of firewood is methodical but not unduly complicated. It begins with the purchase of a logging-truck load of wood from one of the local forestry companies. A price is negotiated and a wad of cash is handed over.
A few days later a 14-wheeler with a sinuous mechanical grappling arm arrives. It lowers and carefully places a couple of dozen trees, denuded of their branches, in two long rows.
One logging truck load, about 18 cords of wood according to the old measurements still in use around here, lasts us about three years.
For a while the wood just lies there and gently seasons. Then, when the anointed day finally comes, I head over, all tricked out in steel toe-capped logging boots, kevlar chaps, hard hat, visor, and ear protectors.
Kristin, unencumbered by such manly gear fetishes, makes do with rubber boots, waterproof trousers and a sturdy pair of gloves.
At times like this we forego urban wordiness.
When Ben Fogle, the British television personality, came to make a documentary here a couple of years ago, the first place Kristin took him was, you’ve guessed it, her wood stack.
“It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have,” she told him severely. “If you can’t chop wood you’re useless.”
Time for me to prove my worth then.
“Long bar?” she asks, a reference to the length of the chain I will run on my saw. Longer is quicker and more efficient, shorter is safer and more manageable.
“Yup,” I reply.
“Sharp?” A reminder of the need to hand file the teeth of the chain every half hour or so to keep them razor-like.
And, for conversation, that is about it.
Not for nothing did I marry an Estonian, one of the world’s most tight-lipped tribes.
I pour in some petrol and bar oil, pull once at full choke and three times at half, and the feisty little machine fires up with a battle-ready scream.
And then we set about the business at hand.
I buck the wood into 16 inch lengths, Kristin loads the rounds onto a trailer, and, when its rubber tyres bulge ominously under the weight, we drive the wood over to the woodshed and unload.
Hour after hour after hour. The routine is punctured only by fuel stops for the saw and blade sharpening. Once in a while I take a splitting axe to the rounds too heavy for Kristin to lift and split them two ways, sometimes four.
By the end of each day, as the early winter sun dips behind the mountain, my arm muscles are howling, my lower back is in spasm, and I wobble unsteadily.
And at that point we have only accomplished half of the process.
Next we must split the wood into thick slices, each the profile of a generous serving of birthday cake. For that we use a log-splitter.
A growling hydraulic petrol-powered machine, the likes of which I had never seen until I moved to Canada, this is a sort of a sideways crusher with a large blade that cleaves logs in its maw.
Kristin loads. I split. Kristin loads. I split. And so it goes on. Until every last round of wood is segmented.
Now all that is needed is for all this wood to be stacked.
And it is at this point that I take a bow.
There are some things you can learn, and others you have to be born into. Chain-sawing, log-splitting and humping large bits of wood around are in the first category.
But the ability to stack wood – as Kristin often reminds me – is not.
“You’re simply not Estonian,” she told me during our early years in the wilderness. “And therefore you don’t know how to stack wood.”
And, I have to admit, she is right.
While those of us who grew up in the temperate belt took Maths, English and maybe Religious Studies at school, Estonians, more earthy, practical and pagan, learned to cross-country ski and stack wood.
So, for the next few days, Kristin works alone, happily listening to her favourite tunes and quietly stacking wood.
And I am sent off to attend to less glamorous tasks: marketing our small business, feeding the dog, and updating my blog.