This week, OFB is pleased to welcome Dennis E. Powell as a regular contributor with his column, “the View from Mudsock Heights.” Everything must start somewhere. For Dennis, it starts with a woodstove.
If I stop doing writing work and get up and do some real work, the woodstove will be ready before I need it.
It is a beautiful old Buck stove, made of steel that’s forged, not cast, with brass fittings and thick fireglass doors. The fan that blows the hot air from around the sides, top, and bottom into the room works just fine despite its being close to 50 years old. All it needs is a good cleaning — it sat in a barn unused for a few years before I bought it last fall for $75 — and a coat of nice, flat black stove paint. Probably a couple of good, hot fires in it before I bring it inside for installation; that paint smells none too good as it cures.
It didn’t go in last year because I had neither hearth nor chimney. I can build the hearth, no problem. I’ve already started accumulating brick for that. This part of the country has a long shared past with the brick business, and I’m hoping to make the hearth entirely of local, used brick, not so much for authenticity as to have that connection with the people who lived around here before I did.
Then Dave Barrett will come and run a very long, very specialized, and very expensive pipe from the stove, in my bottom-level office, up through the corner of the spare bedroom, then through the attic and the roof. Dave’s from Logan, but my friend John said he’s the best, and that was good enough for me. Turns out, Dave is also a skydiver, which I was until my last jump contained the kind of very clear warning that one must heed — the parachute opened early; if it had opened a second earlier it would have ripped apart the airplane and killed everyone, as happens a few times each year. I took it as a sign. But it’s good to have a stove guy who jumps out of airplanes. The fact that he’s alive indicates competence.
Anyway, in my office it should be able to heat the whole house and give me the boost to mental health that comes from having a fire nearby as I work. Of course, there is another crucial element: wood. Or, precisely, that damned locust tree.
It stood dead at the edge of what is now my property for 10 years or more, I’m told. The bark had all fallen away, so it was like a tall, bleached bone pointing skyward until the windstorm last spring that rendered it horizontal. No problem, I thought.
What is it with locust? I’ve dealt with hard woods, but nothing that matches this thing. I marched on down, chainsaw in one hand and Peavey log jack in the other — I’m an old hand at this, or thought I was — and started lopping off the big branches so as to make manhandling the trunk with the Peavey possible. Must be something wrong with the saw, I thought. I could swear I sharpened it before I put it away last year. But no, nothing was wrong with the saw. The wood had the approximate density and hardness of concrete. I did finally get much of it disassembled, split, and stacked, though the main trunk remains. It is impossible to cut a whole slab from it without the bar of the chainsaw becoming so hot that it warps, sending the cut off in strange directions, binding the chain, and turning the air blue with smoke and profanity. Leonard and June, the first people I knew here and among the best people I know, stopped by while I was fixing to give it another try the other day; Leonard remarked that I seemed to have taken good care of my chainsaw. He had no idea how I had abused it in the destruction of the locust.
They say that firewood warms you twice, the first time, when you cut it. I do not hold with this. I think that the energy released when firewood burns is exactly the amount exerted in cutting, splitting, and stacking it. If so, the locust wood will burn very, very hot. (There’s a great song about firewood, “More Wood,” on the Voices of Winter album by Herdman, Hills & Mangsen, which is well worth hearing.)
My plan now is to split the trunk — think an old, out-of-shape Abe Lincoln in the famous rail-splitting scene — because it splits pretty well, then saw chunks off the resulting narrower pieces.
It will get done, because woodsmoke is important. You know that if you’ve ever eaten bacon or treated a big piece of pork or a turkey breast to just-barely-hot hickory or maple smoke for most of a day and tasted the results. It is important because other fuel is expensive, and there are a lot of trees around here; my 10-acre woodlot, properly managed, ought to keep this place in fuel forever.
It is most important, though, because of that first crisp evening, the first evening when long about suppertime you notice it’s already getting dark, the first evening that you step outside and smell, as faint as a distant echo, that first little wisp of woodsmoke from the first fire of the season. Maybe the prettiest sensation in the world, the only possible improvement being to share it with someone you love.
Leastways, that’s how it is out here in the woods.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.