Growing up, we heated our home with wood. The yawning, cast iron stove always seemed hungry, and keeping it fed was a full-time job. Dressed in a plaid wool vest, my father spent his weekends chopping and stacking like a modern-day Paul Bunyan. The whine of his chainsaw filled Saturday mornings, as sweat and wood chips flew and the woodpile climbed higher.
Nothing is cozier than a crackling fire amid falling snow, but ambiance comes at a price. The temperature in our home varied from blistering hot to icebox cold, depending on which room you were in. Located furthest from the ticking wood stove, the upstairs bedroom I shared with my brother was better suited for storing sausages and hams than getting a good night’s sleep. Discomforts aside, my father’s zest for pioneer living left an indelible mark. Even if I’d never be Grizzly Adams, I would spend as much time around log fires as I possibly could.
My childhood friend, “Steener,” lived a short bike ride away and shared my love of the outdoors. One day, his father, Ed, rounded us up and said, “It’s time you boys learn how to build a fire.” Although I’d read Jack London’s tragic tale by the same name many times, playing with matches had been against the rules. We weren’t struggling for survival in the Yukon, but we soon found mastering the art of the “one-match blaze” wouldn’t come easy.
Under Ed’s watchful eye, we gathered a mound of brittle twigs, along with a stack of pencil-sized sticks. “Dry twigs snap, green sticks bend,” Ed said. Using a sharp hatchet, we split logs into quarters, careful to keep our fingers intact. Finally, after arranging the components, Ed scratched a single Ohio Blue Tip across his thumb nail and said, “Just one,” before igniting the tinder.
Since that first experience, I’ve repeated the process many times, and today, my appreciation for log fires burns brighter than ever. Like my father, I relish rolling up the sleeves of my plaid wool shirt and going to work with an axe, and I still insist on using strike-anywhere kitchen matches, just like Ed taught. Whether it’s 1816 or 2016, flames ignite something ancient within us. Stacking a freshly cut cord of wood, I’m filled with a sense of independence, along with the satisfaction of partaking in one of the first forms of recycling.
Over time, I’ve grown sentimental about an afternoon spent splitting wood. Like my father, I yearn for the collision of axe upon oak, for the surgical precision of the perfect cut and for the earthy aroma that rises from within. I’ve become particular about fire woods. Ash is excellent in terms of warmth, followed closely by oak and beech. Silver maple and sassafras make decent kindling but don’t endure. Elm and aspen smolder too much; their only real use is smoking the mosquitoes out of camp. Pine and hemlock make cheery bonfires, but their tar-like resin coats chimneys with dangerous creosote.
One old saw states: “heating with wood warms you twice,” but the magic of fires burns deeper than that. Sure, swinging an axe all afternoon ensures you’ll sweat, and a raging wood stove will have you shedding your sweater in search of cool relief, but a crackling fire among friends offers matchless warmth found nowhere on Earth. ≈
Author and freelance writer Jon Osborn resides in Holland.
By Jon Osborn | Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark