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ARTICLE: Firewood

Using wood to heat is cheap and romantic, but cutting trees is destructive of the environment. More wood can be gathered with less effort without cutting trees.


This short piece was first published in Makin' Do (a self-sufficiency club magazine) in October 1982. Note that fallen wood is common in most forests and woods but rare in some, depending on the species of trees and the age of the forest.

It is a crisp, clear day in the winter. A family arrives by truck at a clearing in their woods. Selecting the biggest oak, they soon have it crashing to the ground. As the father cuts the trunk into sections with his chainsaw, the others load the wood into the truck. Then they drive home, leaving the branches on the ground. The wood is split and stacked for the next year, and finally everyone goes inside to enjoy a large roaring fire in their fireplace.

Perhaps the scene I described is a pretty little picture to you; to me, it is a horror story. Don't get me wrong; I think the movement towards wood stoves is wonderful. I think wood power is more important to self-sufficiency than solar power. I have been told that there is enough new wood in our forests every year to heat every house in America. But I consider the cutting of healthy trees for firewood a crime, the use of open fireplaces to be foolish, and much of the other work unnecessary.

It normally takes 60 years for a canopy forest tree to be old enough to produce seeds and 150 years for it to reach a good size. Then the tree may continue to live and grow for 100 to 800 more years. It will be a home and a source of food for many forest animals. It will protect and enrich the soil. It will purify and cool the air. It will be a source of pleasure to many generations. And if you must consider commercial value, it's value as lumber is much greater than its value as firewood and will continue to increase through most of its life.

It's true the tree might be cut for other reasons: to clear land, to get rid of an undesirable species, to thin the woods, and to remove a diseased individual. And under these circumstances, the wood might as well be used as firewood. But in all cases use caution; a canopy tree once cut will never be replaced in your lifetime.

The roaring fire is another mistake. If it is uneconomical to heat your home with gas, please don't switch to wood as an answer. First insulate the house, and even more important, stop up the drafts. Don't use an open fireplace as it will suck more heat up the chimney than it produces, unless the open fireplace is your only source of heat, and you roast your face and freeze your back as I once did. Even the best fireplace will produce less heat than the poorest wood heater. "We're off the point," you say, revving your chainsaw. "How do we get wood if we don't cut down trees." Stop and put your chain saw down, and walk around. Enjoy the woods a little.

Look, there is a standing dead tree, but don't cut it. Cutting it might cause a large branch or the main trunk to fall on you. Standing dead trees are called widow-makers as a result. They'll be on the ground in a year or two anyway, and they'll be fully cured when they fall. There are lots of fallen dead ones around.

And look at all the dead branches and small dead trees. You ask, why fool with them? Well, you end up spliting most of the wood you get anyway. These are just the right size without needing to be split. A bowsaw will cut them quickly and more safely than a chainsaw. In fact, I seldom bother with anything big enough to split, so I use neither axe nor chainsaw.

I collect twigs to start my fire, one inch diameter sticks to get it going, and two to four inch diameter wood to keep it going. I only add a log when I want to hold the fire overnight. Half an hour a day keeps my woodpile stocked; I never go more than 100 feet from my cabin; and dead wood accumulates faster than I can burn it. Of course, I made my cabin deliberately small. But it would not take four times as much firewood to heat four times the space. Even the youngest children can gather branches, and kids by ten should be able to use a bowsaw. So a larger house should have more gatherers.

"I can't use this wood," you say. "It's rotten." Actually, rotten wood burns better than sound, once it is dried. I do avoid thoroughly rotten stuff because it's more trouble than it's worth. In all cases, keep your wood where termites, wood ants, roaches, and beetles can't get into your house. Even "sound" wood has them.

Don't worry about what kinds of wood you burn either. If you gather the wood yourself, the best wood is the closest. I have burned redbud, ash, hickory, oak, walnut, sycamore, maple, hophornbeam, poplar, cedar, and pine, and I have this report to make: they all burn well when dry and poorly when damp; they all produce lots of creosote if the stove and flue aren't hot enough; cedar produces a lot of sparks.

It is a crisp clear day in the winter. A family that has been walking in the woods return to their truck. The father gives all but the youngest a bowsaw and everyone gets busy. Scattering out through the woods, they begin sawing fallen branches and small dead trees. The father saws up a medium-sized dead tree. They load the truck and leave, slowing to wave to the farmer who told them they could have all the fallen wood they wanted. Arriving at home, they stack the wood and go inside to dinner. Looking at the mural of a roaring fireplace, the father says, "You know, I really did enjoy that fireplace, but I am a lot more pleased with the money and work we have saved with a tight wood stove."

Additional note: Dorothy Robinson has been investigating the health hazards caused by wood smoke. When a stove is filled with fuel for the night and the burning rate controlled by limiting the inflow of air, the stove produces particulates and toxic byproducts which are real environmental hazards. The byproducts which coat the inside of the stove pipe often become a fire hazard as well. My advice is to burn dry wood and keep a good draft to avoid creating harmful smoke. Others feel that wood stoves should be eliminated.

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