Build a Fire
raise the 12-pound triangular piece of metal high over my
head and then swing it down hard through an arc defined by
the length of my arms and the pull of gravity. As the metal
meets the chunk of red oak, the force of the blow is resolved
with a dry popping sound as the wood gives way, splits and
shoots off in opposite directions, perpendicular to the plane
of my ax head. As October cools toward November, I begin to
disassemble cords of renewable energy stacked in my backyard
and get my woodstove stoking.
Iím always a little hesitant when I first pick up my Monster
Maul at the start of a new heating season. I got the mutant
ax soon after I began burning wood. I had used a normal-looking
ax and wedges before picking up one of the monsters, which
looks like a large wedge welded to a steel handle and painted
fluorescent orange. It weighs a bit more than your standard
ax, but it packs an amazing force for wood splitting.
After Iíve split a few pieces, I get back into the simple
rhythm and observations of the process. I soon slide into
a somewhat smooth swing that brings my oversized splitter
popping through thick wood. Iím applying my biological energy
through the swing of the Monster Maul to split the wood (biomass)
that will, in turn, provide me with energy to heat my house.
But before I take a swing, I look at the grains of the wood
to see if I can detect any points that look particularly vulnerable
to splitting. As I raise the fluorescent ax above my head,
I keep my eye on the point Iíve decided to strike. The more
I focus on the place I want to hit, the better I get at hitting
it. It becomes almost a form of meditation. I also burn up
about 23 calories a minute and get some decent exercise along
Iíve been heating my home with wood for more than 20 years.
I generally burn about three cords of the renewable resource
each cold season, accounting for most of the heat I use in
my home. A high-efficiency natural-gas boiler and a system
of water-filled radiators is my ďbackupĒ heating system. Heating
accounts for about 35 percent of the energy used annually
in the average American home.
The first stove I put in my house was a sheet-metal affair.
It got hot fast and cold even faster. It also didnít burn
very cleanly, particularly when I fed it poorly seasoned fuel.
A black sooty smoke headed skyward from my tall brick chimney.
Creosote, a black glazing that is a dangerous and flammable
byproduct of inefficient wood burning, built up in my chimney.
My chimney sweep warned me that I needed to clean up my act.
A lot of the potential heat in the wood I burned was being
lost, and research was being published documenting the pollution
associated with stove smoke.
Back about seven years ago, I replaced my old stove with one
that was both more efficient and more ecologically benign.
It is a low-emission stove that is able to circulate and burn
combustible gases released by burning wood. Little smoke now
rises from my chimney. In my stoveís door is a window through
which I can watch not only how the wood is burning, but also
this secondary combustion. The burning of these gases takes
place through two pipes with holes along their length that
run across the top of the stoveís firebox. The pipes mix heated
air with the gases, which then burn in a number of small flames
that emerge and converge from their holes. This additional
burning process substantially reduces the pollution released
and the creosote deposited in my chimney, while increasing
the heat produced.
Burning well-seasoned wood also helps to minimize the pollution
released by a wood stove. About half of the weight of a green
piece of freshly cut wood is water. Green wood smolders and
smokes, providing plenty of pollution and little heat. Seasoning
the wood can reduce the water content to about 20 percent
of the woodís weight, and make it far easier and cleaner to
All the wood I now burn has been split and stacked for at
least a year. I am just about to receive a load of wood that
will be stacked for the 2003-04 heating season. The wood I
burned during the last heating season cost about $330. As
I work my way through cords of seasoned wood, there are some
pieces that need the further attention of my maul. I toss
these into a pile for future splitting, and usually burn them
at the end of the heating season or the beginning of the next
one. The wood I am splitting was leftover from last winterís
I make at least two different types of fires to heat my well-weatherized
home. Currently, I am starting fires dependent upon how cold
it gets. These are quick fires, made from smaller pieces of
wood that are loosely stacked in the stove. These fires take
the chill off and may go through the night and then be allowed
to burn out. As the cold weather sets in, I will start to
make more substantial fires that involve larger pieces of
wood that more densely fill the stoveís firebox and can keep
things warm for eight hours or more without refueling. I compost
As I swing my Monster Maul, I think about the benefits of
heating with wood, and how I like seeing the energy Iím using
instead of just getting a utility bill in the mail. This year,
I have been particularly struck by the thought that I donít
have to threaten any Middle Eastern countries with war in
order to secure future supplies of this renewable, locally
grown energy resource.