Pete McMartin: The fine and fastidious art of wood-stacking

Opinion: The Norwegians famously stack their wood in huge circular piles that resemble silos. They are breathtaking to behold, in their own weirdly fastidious way. But then, Norwegians are weirdly fastidious about wood-stacking.

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A neighbour took down a big pine in his backyard last week and rolled the chainsawed rounds out to the curb. He said, “Help yourself.”

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The rounds were thick-waisted, some of them as big as bass drums. They weighed enough that the sight of them brought to mind hernias, compressed discs and the fact that my intestinal control during moments of extreme exertion was not what it once was.

I wheelbarrowed the rounds one by one around the corner to my house, and when I tipped them out, they bounced off my driveway with a hollow, sonorous thonk! — the driveway shivering under me at the weight of them. There were about three dozen of them when I finished, and they lay there, some upright, some tipped on their sides, like giant board-game tokens.

I had a long-handled maul, and standing over one of the rounds I took aim at its heart. I swung as hard as I could and … the maul bounced off the wood. The blow left only a small moist cleft in the round. I swung again. Bounce. Again. Bounce. Again. Bounce. Sap-filled and spongy, the wood was not in a cooperative mood.

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I retreated to my garage, unearthed two wedges from a tool cabinet, and pounded them into the round’s middle with a sledgehammer. There is that moment of satisfaction when the wood, wounded, groans with a resinous creak and, giving way under the momentum of blows, splits along a fault line like the earth opening up. The round succumbed. I stood over it, my t-shirt already damp with sweat, and then went to work splitting the two halves into quarters, and then eighths. When I finished, my hands hummed from the vibrations of the blows. It was going to be a long afternoon.

There are hundreds of websites on how to stack wood — so many it seems that stacking wood is surpassed in frequency on social media only by the tribulations of the Kardashians. For aficionados, wood-stacking incorporates both science and art, and details matter.

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There are debates in the wood-stacking community, for example, about stacking “bark-up” or “bark-down” — which, to me, seems barking mad. Some stackers are so fastidious they chainsaw their rounds to equal lengths before splitting; some, mindful of airflow, stack wood in neat cross-hatch patterns so that the final product resembles a long Jenga puzzle turned on its side; and some — the architecturally adept — stack wood in the shape of spirals, balls, cones, hay bales, even entire houses. Some stack their wood in walls so solid they look like the work of mosaicists. Indeed, some wood-stackers treat their woodpiles as canvases, and online you can see depictions of rising suns, fish, wild boar, wooden wheels, birds in flight, and — who would have thought wood-stacking could encompass irony? — felled trees. These mural-like piles have the same impermanence of Navajo sand paintings, their artistry slowly being burned away through the winter.

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The Norwegians famously stack their wood in huge circular piles that resemble silos. They are breathtaking to behold, in their own weirdly fastidious way. But then, Norwegians are weirdly fastidious about wood-stacking. When the national broadcaster, NRK, aired a 12-hour show on the subject — yes, 12 hours — 20 per cent of the population tuned in to watch. The show consisted entirely of people stacking wood, then burning it in a wood stove for eight hours. It precipitated a flood of angry emails to the show’s producers, and split the country along the bark-up bark-down divide. Hundreds more phoned in to complain about how the fire was being tended.

It was a Norwegian, Lars Mytting, who wrote the surprise international bestseller Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. Among the practicalities of wood-stacking, Mytting related how American women in the 19th century measured up a man as husband material by the shape of his woodpile. An upright and solid man would have an upright and solid woodpile. A tall woodpile spoke of a man with big ambitions but who was prone to collapse and disaster. A lazy man left his pile unfinished, while the man who put away a lot of wood for the winter promised to be loyal and industrious.

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In that vein, after splitting and stacking my wood for four excruciating hours, a woman considering me as a husband might have looked at my woodpile and wondered if I was dyslexic. I started stacking by cross-hatching the wood neatly, but the irregularity of the pieces flummoxed my ability to keep the rows level, so after the second row I figured the hell with it and stacked the wood any way I could. The result looked like a mouthful of British teeth. Miraculously, it remained erect, and contained so many spaces within it that, if experience is any indication, it will provide shelter throughout the winter for potato bugs, ants and spiders, some of which, en route to my fireplace, will find a home inside my home.

Finally, this:

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It is said that chopping your own wood warms you twice — once when you chop it, and once when you burn it. This aphorism is often ascribed to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond in 1854, but similar versions appeared long before then. Some insist a more updated version might be that chopping your own wood warms you three times — once when you chop it, once when you burn it, and once when burning wood contributes to global warming. Even so, there is debate about whether burning wood does or does not contribute to global warming, which is a question for another column, because my back aches and a hot shower is calling my name.

Pete McMartin is a former Vancouver Sun columnist.

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