Cord Values | Life in the Kingdom

In this installment of “Life in the Kingdom,” Ben Hewitt reflects on the necessity of building a home for the wood that heats yours.

By Ben Hewitt

Oct 28 2021


Cord Values

Photo Credit : Tom Haugomat
Cord Values
Photo Credit : Tom Haugomat

I built a woodshed. This is very exciting to me, because for years our firewood has been covered by sheets of rusty roofing tin held in place by old truck tires and the smattering of heavy maple rounds that would not yield to the maul. There’s nothing wrong with the old tin/used tires/unyielding maple approach to sheltering firewood; many a Vermont home has been heated for decades, if not generations, with precisely the same technique. When it comes to rural thrift, it’s at least as proven as the repurposing of old pickup truck caps as animal shelters, and nearly as obvious as the baling-twine-as-a-belt trick. Still, there are deficits.

First, there’s the issue of collapse. This becomes apparent only after you’ve extracted a sufficient quantity of wood from the center of the stack, something that often coincides with accumulating snow atop the roofing tin. At this perilous point, you can either remove the snow or simply hope for the best as you continue to diminish the stack, armload by armload, keeping an uneasy eye on the sagging metal. Having experimented with both techniques, I can report that I prefer a third: Send the boys out for more wood.

The other deficit is purely aesthetic, because it’s pretty much inevitable that by the end of the heating season, the tin that covered the wood we’ve burned will now be stacked (or worse yet, not stacked) in our front yard. Now, no one would accuse us of keeping too neat a homestead; on any given day, you might find a shovel leaning against a tree, for no apparent reason other than it was the most logical place to lean it at the time. Or you might notice that someone has left the floor jack at the edge of the driveway, where he recently changed a flat tire (in his defense, I’ll point out that the jack is extremely heavy, and that I, er, he will only need it again in 12 hours when I, er, he retrieves the patched tire from our mechanic). In fairness, I should note that in our family, the unflattering tendency to leave things lying about is 100 percent a male trait. For her part, Penny has always been one of those “a place for everything and everything in its place” sorts of people. But as there are three of us and only one of her, there’s really not much she can do to mitigate.

So: a woodshed. One small step in the battle against homestead clutter, and one giant step in the direction of convenience. And then there’s the old adage that a woodpile is a reflection of the person who made it. Indeed, in his book Norwegian Wood, Lars Mytting offers a handy guide to woodpile personality profiling. From Mytting’s book, I learned that I am a man of big ambitions but also should be watched for sagging and collapse (tall pile); that I’m unstable, lazy, and prone to drunkenness (unfinished pile, some logs lying on the ground); and finally that I should be viewed with suspicion, because some of the wood I’m claiming as my own might actually be stolen (old and new wood piled together). A woodshed might not bend every one of these character traits in a positive direction, but surely it could be seen as a sign of growth and maturity.

I built the shed over the course of about three weeks, in my usual fits-and-starts style, using cedar poles for the main frame and small-diameter spruce trees as rafters. For the roof, I dipped into my pile of special 2x4s, the ones that came off the mill crooked, or with too much wane to serve as proper framing stock. I like having a pile of imperfect lumber lying around almost as much as I like having a pile of perfectly good lumber lying around, if only for the satisfaction of finding ways to utilize inferior materials. I screwed the 2x4s across the top sides of the spruce poles to serve as purlins for the roofing, for which I was able to repurpose a significant portion of the aforementioned rusty tin. All told, I screwed and hammered my way through maybe 10 bucks’ worth of fasteners; all other materials either came from our woods or were diverted from some less glorious fate. This did not result in the grandest structure in the history of woodsheds, but then again: 10 bucks. I’ve known folks to pay more for fancy coffee drinks.

Even before the shed was fully complete, we began filling it. I’d installed vertical cedar posts at roughly 18-inch spacing along both sides of the shed; these would serve as uprights against which to stack each row. When stacked to a height that, according to Mytting, pegged me as a man of big ambitions, each row would contain approximately one cord of wood. This meant that we could fit roughly 10 cords of firewood in our new shed, enough for nearly two full seasons of heating and cooking. I didn’t have that much wood ready for stacking; I figured we had maybe six cords split, and another two or so in logs. No doubt if not for my instability and drunkenness, it’d all be ready to go, but alas. My vices are sundry.

Over the course of many evenings stretching across many weeks, Penny and I stacked neat rows in the new woodshed, armload by armload, maybe five sticks to each armload, an incalculable number of armloads per row. Sometimes we worked in silence, other times we talked, keeping to a rhythm that allowed us to pass each other at the midpoint between shed and pile, one of us with arms full, the other with arms to be filled, the air redolent with the sweet smell of fresh-cut wood, which is tied for first place with freshly baled hay as the smell I love beyond all others. 

The boys helped too, and I was reminded that one of the greatest pleasures in my life is listening through the open kitchen window to my sons’ back-and-forth banter as they work, their conversation freed to roam by the straightforward nature of the task. Stacking wood demands relatively little of the mind while asking just enough of the body, a combination I’ve always found to be fertile ground for clear thinking and good storytelling.

By the time you read this, our new woodshed will be full, or nearly so. Certainly near enough to full that we’ll be assured a winter’s worth of well-sheltered firewood, plus at least a solid down payment on the following winter’s ration, a goal that’s eluded me for more heating seasons than I can count, but which finally, finally feels so close that failure is all but incomprehensible. I wonder what Mytting would say about a fellow who, after more than a dozen consecutive years of falling woefully short, is on the verge of achieving his firewood ambitions. I’d like to think that he’d paint me as a man of resolve, a determined provider who retains his equanimity even in the face of a dream deferred.

Yeah. That sounds about right to me.