Burning Wood

As I start the morning fire in the basement wood furnace, I’m reminded of how precious my stash of firewood is. It wasn’t always like this. Twenty years ago, firewood was cheap and plentiful. Most of my neighbors purchased it from a sawmill in Hessel, 50 miles away. It cost only $20/cord if you bought 5 cords at a time (a truckload), and if you bought 4 truckloads, the 5th one was free. So, in the end, that worked out to $16/face cord (4 feet x 8 feet x 16 inches). To anyone who has ever worked in the woods — chainsawing trees, cutting them up, and hauling them — this was one hell of a deal. The hardwood slabs of wood were a mix of birch, maple, and aspen. Since it was slab wood, there was no need to split the pieces, and they seemed to dry quite readily.

To buy a cord of wood in my neighborhood today, the going rate is $80 to $90/cord. Not that those folks who work in the woods don’t deserve it; the work is strenuous and exhausting. But if you expect to burn through 20 or 30 face cords over the course of a long, cold winter, the expense is a bit challenging to the household budget.

These last few years, we have relied on electric baseboard heat, kept at about 63 degrees throughout the house. My wife and I each wear a sweater or a light fleece jacket around and feel quite comfortable. In fact, we have gotten so acclimated to 63 degrees that a 70 degree range at a retail store or a friend’s house feels more like the tropics and makes us sleepy; we’re ready to break out in hives.

But come February in the Upper Peninsula, the mercury drops into that below-zero zone, and it’s time to fire up the wood furnace to take the chill off. My present wood stash is a collection from various sources: a few trees I cleared from the hillside, several leftover cords from a neighbor who converted to a wood pellet stove, and some miscellaneous stumps and odd pieces from trees that the city cut down in town. I burn the wood very sparingly these days, knowing what a precious commodity it is.

With all the progress our culture has made using wind and solar technologies, it won’t be long before wood burning is a relic of the past. And maybe just as well — I’m getting a little tired of pitching wood through the basement window and sweeping ashes from the furnace.