Julia Spencer-Fleming on Getting Wood

School’s back in session. The tourists (mostly) have gone. There’s a new nip in the air at nights, and the days are trending cooler. To the experienced Maine resident, it all points to one thing:

Time to get in the firewood.

Also useful for chickens, if you know what I mean

One was to get ‘er done is to do it yourself. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a manly, flannel-shirted Mainer in possession of a forty-acre wood lot is in need of a chainsaw. And a drag chain, tow rig on the truck and steel-capped boots. The advantages of cutting your own are many; it’s free, it’s ecological, it gets you out in the fresh air, and you always know what sort of wood you’re getting. The downside? It’s “free” only if you discount the 217 hours it’s going to take you to down, trim, cut, split and stack. The environmental benefits aren’t apparent to the beetles and borers (or, God forbid, bees…) you dislodge, and they will make themselves known by swarming all over those steel-toed boots. You will be out in the fresh air in May, June, and July, during which time your choice will be either suffering heat stroke in your long-sleeved shirt or getting eaten by mosquitoes. I’m not even going to think about the ticks.

Hot, sweaty, and manly. That's how we like 'em in Maine.

Still, the man or woman who puts three or four cords into the wood pile has earned bragging rights for the rest of the fall and winter, and will be the recipient of admiring nods from the neighbors at the Town Meeting.

The wussier, but more convenient, way is to pay someone else to bring your wood. In the years since I’ve been in Maine, I’ve had my wood delivered by an “Urban forester,” a kind of cheerful back-to-the-land hippie; various drivers from a large corporate wood farm; and a father-son team whose dump truck held a suspiciously varied selection of wood – I don’t know if they got their supply in the dead of night from other people’s wood lots, and I didn’t ask. These men all had two things in common: they all wore grungy insulated shirt-jackets, and they all enjoyed talking my head off. Seriously, I’ve had some of my best political discussions ever with the Wood Guy. It must be lonely up there in the timberland.

So how do you find your Wood Guy? You have to ask around. There’s a lot of what Wall Street calls

Your Wood Guy will not look like this. No one in Maine looks like this.

volatility in the business – the fellow who reliably delivered full cords of well-cured oak and maple for a few years will, one fall, be gone. Did he move? Go to law school? Stumble over someone’s marijuana patch in the woods*? Who knows? Time to find another supplier, and for that, you need recommendations. You don’t want to be like my friend who called the number on one of those hand-painted signs without any further checking. She got her two cords delivered via a rusty pick-up over the course of several weeks. She still isn’t sure she got full cords, and some of the wood was alder and pine (softwoods look pretty on a campfire, but they won’t do a lick of good in your woodstove.)


Buddy and his boys. Not as pretty as the New Yorker with the prop ax, but these fellows can get 'er done.

Eventually, you’ll get a consensus from the neighbors, and you’ll put in a call. Your Wood Guy will have a name like Sylvestre DuChagne, pronounced “Buddy Doochin.” If his operation is big enough, Buddy will be able to set you up with 16 inch, 14 inch and even the hard-to-find 12 inch splits. Measure your stove! There are few purchases less returnable than two cords of wood that’s been dumped in your driveway.

Once Buddy’s arrived with his dump truck and you’ve had a nice chat about who you’re supporting in the hotly-contested Senatorial race (Angus King) then the real fun starts. You may not have had to down, drag and split that timber, but you still have to stack it. There are many opinions as to the “best” or “right” technique for stacking wood. In between trees? On the porch? In the barn? I maintain that the absolute best way to stack wood is to have your teenagers do it. If

Peace of mind.

you’re inside enjoying a hot cup of tea while they haul it off, do you really care how they arrange the wood? No, because if you play your cards right, they’ll also be responsible for bringing the splits in during the winter.

Once the kids are done, take some time to enjoy the sight! A heavily-stacked wood pile engenders the same deep, warm security as a full pantry and a healthy bank balance. You know no matter how deep the snow, how harsh the weather, how frequent the power outages, you’ll make it through to mud season. That’s the way life should be.

*This is actually going to be the plot of Paul’s next book.

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11 Responses to Julia Spencer-Fleming on Getting Wood

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    Okay, I have to admit that, until now, I’ve not given too much thought to how wood actually gets into the stack in my back yard that will provide fuel for the fireplace this winter. Around here, the Wood Guys are pretty much in hiding, but cords of firewood have mysteriously begun appearing curbside . . . with signs denoting their price . . . and if you want it dumped in your driveway, you’ll have to dump it there yourself. While I doubt that the wood pile in our back yard will ever grow to the proportions shown in your “peace of mind” picture, it is indeed heart-warming sight. Thanks, Julia, for a great start-the-day chuckle!

  2. John Clark says:

    Ah, firewood. For years, I cut, split, hauled and stacked 10 cords annually, six for me and four for my late mom. Woodcutting has its own personal history if you do it long enough. Events like the day after Christmas when I dropped a maple on power lines, killing power for Union, Appleton and part of Searsmont. (CMP was gracious because it was the holiday season, so it didn’t cost my wallet, just me self-esteem). You are right in your observation that things do change. we moved to a new house where burning wood wasn’t practical and then Mom died. I’m sure my chainsaw feels sorely neglected, but my creaky back thanks me on a daily basis. Great column that triggered a lot of visual images from the wayback machine.

  3. MCWriTers says:

    One thing is for sure: Mainers have opinions. And no transaction takes place without the sharing of some of those.

    It is important to measure a few of those, since the stove is persnickety, as is the chainsaw, and it is no fun on a freezing morning in January to try to get the saw going to cut two inches of the damned log so it will fit in the stove.

    Pellets, anyone?


  4. Lea Wait says:

    Wood … ah, yes. Our “wood guy” has been leaving us messages, but we still haven’t ordered …our supply from last year’s “a little warmer than usual” winter has left us with
    enough to last until (we hope) January. And we’ve also discovered the joys of — not pellets, Kate — but biobricks! cleaner, burn slower, and leave the chimney cleaner. We do have a supply of those. My favorite wood story is the year a prospective son-in-law (a city boy) arrived to visit in late August, just about the time a large truck load of wood was dropped in our driveway, ready for what would have taken my husband and I a week, more or less, of off and on work stacking in our barn. He looked at the wood and asked, hesitantly, “Would you mind if I helped? You could show me how. I’ve read about stacking wood. I never thought I’d get the chance to do it.” As my husband and I immediately transformed our view of this big strapping guy into an angel who’d just dropped from Philadelphia into our lives, he added, “And could you show me how to split a log or two? I’ve always dreamed of doing that, too.” Talk about winning your way into the hearts of your prospective in-laws …..!

  5. Around this time of year my husband likes to quote the old adage that “Wood warms you three times: when you cut it, when you stack it, and when you burn it.”

  6. MCWriTers says:

    To Kaitlyn’s comment, I would add: a fourth time when you sweep up the bark, bits, spiders, and other insects that come in with the wood. And if you have a woodpile on the porch, you might get warmed a fifth time chasing off the mice.

    Obviously, we ALL need to heat with wood. Then we can toss the treadmills and cancel our gym memberships.


  7. Magdalen says:

    It’s not just Maine, y’know. I live in the Endless Mountains corner of Northeast Pennsylvania. We have 24 acres, half of it wooded and most of that white ash. The entire house (built in 1794 or thereabouts) is hanging off a massive chimney block with six fireplaces, three working ones on the main floor and three pretty little ones in the bedrooms. We heat these two floors entirely with a soapstone wood stove in the largest fireplace, the one with the bread ovens built into the brick.

    My husband used to live in a pretty village in Berkshire, England. He had a couple trees in his backyard that actually had their own protection orders (!) so it was a bit of a culture shock to move here and discover that he was inheriting two chain saws. He set off to take a class on how to fell trees safely, got all the gear, and gets ‘er done. We store the wood in the horse stalls in the barn, alongside my tractor and my husband’s snowblower. Depending on the winter, we burn six or seven cords of wood.

    I wish we had a Buddy, though. He looks cool.

  8. Allison says:

    Greetings from the midwest!

    Many of my childhood memories are of bundling up and going out to the woods with dad to help load the wood. Still shocks me that people cut wood while it’s warm! We always cut when it is cold out. Less sweat that way! The worst part was getting it into the basement. And that was always a winter long project! Sadly this year dad will not be able to use the chainsaw. I know I’m not the only one to miss the wood heat this winter winter.

  9. Marni Graff says:

    Even though we live in coastal N C, our son heats his home with wood from Nov until March. He’s proud of his “splitting” biceps!

  10. Marianne says:

    Ohhhh, I envy that wood pile! We really need to order some up here in the Maine mountains. And if it comes with that “I’m a lumberjack” guy in the red flannel shirt, all the better!

  11. Pamela Oberg says:

    Oh, I’m suddenly missing living in Maine! (And I live in NH. . .but no fireplace or woodstove, sadly.) I loved watching my dad use the log splitter (a friend would bring one over on a weekend, and we’d split wood for hours). I especially loved it when I was allowed to run the splitter! A big deal for a little girl. And then hauling those splits, perhaps two at a time, to the growing woodpile–very nice memories of my father and I. It was always an adventure going out to breakfast when the loggers were home for a bit, too; flannel, boots, more flannel, beards, more flannel, and GALLONS of coffee consumed. Thanks for this post!

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