The Fifth Element

Every now and then I’m seized with the urge to write about woodpiles. It’s as if I’m suddenly ambushed and possessed by the spirit of Robert Frost–which happens sometimes, let me tell you, if you live in New Hampshire. And if said possession also coincides with the Chinese New Year, then you get this blog entry.

In other parts of the world, it’s said that wood warms you four times–once when you cut it, once when you split it, once when you stack it, and once when you burn it. In my neck of the woods, we would scorn such wimpy timber. Granted, I buy my wood already split, but in my experience wood warms you when: you stack it, you throw it in the truck because you have to move the stack to a new house, you restack it, you throw it in the truck again because the pest control guy said you stacked it too near the house, you restack it again, maybe split it again because the woodstove wants some smaller pieces, and then finally you burn it. That makes seven times by my count. Firewood like that would be cheap at almost any price.

And that doesn’t even count going out to the pile, several times a day, and lugging the wood back to the smaller pile, ready for burning, inside by the woodstove. When you interact with wood as much as we do, it starts to make sense that in China it was included as one of the elements. Stacking the last couple of cords with my son and daughter, it was easy to feel like we were living inside a world of wood: we were surrounded by it, breathed it, got it on our skin and blown in our eyes. Piles of wood also create an ecosystem of their own, colonized by spiders, ants, mice, crickets, and the odd wasp, like the one that clung to my glove and then stung me when I brushed my hand across my forehead.

But all the pains seem worthwhile when glowing embers fill the stove or fireplace, and flames dance with the shadows they cast. We wouldn’t have it any other way, even when the wind comes down the chimney and blows smoke into the room. Our clothes may smell of wood smoke a bit, but that’s one of the best smells there is. And that, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, is proof that the gods love us and want us to be happy.

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