A few weeks ago, I spent roughly two hours a day over about ten days participating in one of the ancient New England rites of Spring – stacking next winter’s cordwood in the shed, something I have been doing every year for the last thirty-five years since I’ve lived in this house. A massive row of green, newly-cut wood sits in the driveway next to the woodshed (I’ve had to move my truck to the neighbor’s for the duration), taking up almost thirty linear feet of space in a pile four feet high and nine feet wide. I try to put away just a bit over a cord per day, a task that takes me about two hours. The State of New Hampshire Agriculture Department distributes a brochure (published by the National Conference on Weights and Measures) titled “How To Avoid Getting Burned When Buying Firewood,” which states (after first establishing that a full, legal cord of wood is one that measures one hundred and twenty-eight cubic feet) that you should “stack the wood neatly by placing the wood in a line or a row, with individual pieces touching and parallel to each other, making sure that the wood is compact and has as few gaps as possible.” I start by picking through the pile and pulling out the larger pieces, laying down the bottom of the first long row across the length of the woodshed, on top of some pallets which raise the pile up off the floor to allow for air to circulate, then placing several other large pieces, one for each subsequent row, in a line down one side of the width of the shed, the last piece of which is almost butting up against the big sliding doors at the back.
I construct each row carefully, stacking the wood close and tight. Doing so serves two purposes; first of all it allows me, when all the work is done, to measure the pile with a degree of precision so that I can track just how much wood I’m using daily, weekly or monthly (I typically burn about one cord per month in the dead of winter, less in the Fall or early Spring); it also means that I can pack a large amount of wood in a relatively small space, while the idiosyncratic irregularity of each piece still allows for some gaps and spaces throughout -- once again, so that air can circulate through the pile through the rest of the Spring, and on into the Summer and early Fall, drying the wood out so that it will burn hot and clean. Then, an armload of wood at a time, I build the row up to about five feet high. When that’s done, and I’m sure the row is steady and stable, I lay down the bottom of the next row and then stop for the day, my sweaty shirt and the aches and pains in my back and in my arms (this was a lot easier on me thirty-five years ago!) a confirmation of the old saying “wood warms you twice; once when you stack it, and once when you burn it.”
Is it coincidence, I wonder, that I find myself doing this during Lent? That realization lends a certain rightness to my task; the phrase “the mortification of the flesh” keeps popping into my head every time I have a hard time straightening up after I bend over to pick up more wood. The monks in the ancient Church understood that physical discipline was both a way to subdue earthly desires during this time of penance as well as a remembrance of the impermanence of earthly life itself – in this case, my sore back and aching fingers are letting me know in no uncertain terms that I am not getting any younger. Paradoxically, though, the time spent stacking wood in the Spring implies a certain forward-looking mentality; an act of faith, if you will -- a Novena to the trinity of maple, birch, and oak. Each stick I lift and put into place is like another bead on the Rosary, an affirmation of the belief that -- despite the reminder of my advancing age that I get from each twinge in my shoulders and back and hands -- I will be here on that day in the late Fall when the evening chill prompts me to start a fire in the woodstove, the first of the many fires that will warm us through all the long winter yet to come.