Until I was 16, a considerable portion of my childhood was consumed by wood. A saying I heard a lot in Montana is that “chopping wood warms you twice,” which means you work up a sweat cutting and splitting firewood, and then you get to derive the pleasure of heat from it when it makes its way into your woodstove.
I hated that we heated our big house entirely with wood heat when I was a kid. We had a stove in the middle of the house, in the dining room, a fireplace in the living room next to it, a small little “trashburner” in the bathroom on the main floor. We also had couple of pot-bellied woodstoves on the second floor, one in my parents’ bedroom, and one in mine.
My sister’s room was heated only by whatever drifted out of the rooms with stoves, but it was usually plenty. The main woodstove downstairs put out a lot of heat, and unless it was unusually cold—zero or lower—it cranked out enough heat for the whole house, although the further you got away from that stove, the more you wanted another sweater.
But from the time I was 6 or 7, I was expected to chop kindling and stock the wood rack on the front porch. Like all chores, it was annoying as hell, and I resented having to waste time I could have spent organizing my comic books or baseball cards instead pushing wheelbarrows full of wood through the snow and ice, or trying to keep from losing a finger splitting lodgepole billets into pencil-thin slats of kindling.
It was worse than that, though. My summers were also ruined, because it seemed like every weekend I’d have to accompany my father in an old, beat-up truck up into the woods where we’d fell dead trees or cut up slash piles, to fill the bed with firewood and then drive it back to town where I’d have to unload it and stack it in the woodshed.
Warm you twice, my ass: more like warm you all year long, and even in the summer.
Sometimes, in order to maximize our collection efforts, we’d fell the dead trees and cut them into 8-foot logs, filling the truck that way. And when I say “filling the truck,” I don’t just mean filling it up to the edge of the bed.
Oh no: my dad would build racks out of hardwood that fit into the 2×4 wells of the sides, so we could haul an entire cord of wood (4x4x8 feet). We’d haul the logs back to our yard, and he’d sawmill them into firewood there with a chainsaw. I had to feed the logs, 16 inches at a time, past the end of the sawbucks we’d stacked the logs in. Then I’d have to pick up all those chunks and transfer them to the woodshed.
That woodshed was an old four-seater outhouse that constituted the complete “facilities” of the house when we first moved into it in 1972. This was an old Victorian house built in 1889, whose previous owner had been born and died in it. The house was never upgraded to the 20th-century with utilities, beyond electric lights in the kitchen.
To even make the house habitable for a young family in 1972, my parents installing basic plumbing and power to every room. The old four-seater outhouse became the storage locker for the wood we would end up using every winter. (In case you’re wondering, multiple-seat outhouses were never designed so that three or four people could all do their business at the same time. They were built that way, so when one bay filled up, you could move to the next.)
Once the outhouse was packed back to front, floor to ceiling with wood (about 5 cords), we’d move onto other outbuildings in the yard, and when space there ran out, we’d stack wood along the fences.
When I was a kid, it felt like my entire life was consumed by firewood. It’s funny, though: when I think back on those days, I kind of miss that reliance on heat that comes entirely from a fuel you earned yourself.
Around the time I was 16, we installed a central unit in the basement and then had forced-air heat as a mainstay, though any house in Montana with a woodstove makes ample use of it come wintertime.
Being able to flick a switch and have warm air blowing over you is a luxury we take for granted. But unless you’ve lived in a place where you have to chop kindling and crumple up newspapers and haul firewood, you can’t fully appreciate the modern world.
And like the old-timers I grew up around always said: nothing beats that radiant heat.
Now that I’m practically an old-timer myself, I just feel warmer beside a fire burning in the woodstove—a fire I built myself from wood I carried in from the woodshed outside.
Although I’ll level with you: I bought two cords of wood to fill that shed. Ain’t no way I’m going to lose a single hour’s worth of Montana summer going out and cutting that stuff myself. Life is too short, and I know autumn has arrived when the pick-up trucks and trailers start showing up along the roadways and parking lots filled with nicely cut and stacked firewood bearing a price tag and a phone number.
First one I see, I’m going to call. MSN