The woods up here have gone silent again after a month of the roar of chainsaws, bucket truck, industrial chipper, tracked grinder, log splitter, splitting mall, steel wedge and kindling hatchet chewing up broken trees, dead trees, live trees, widow makers, raggedy limbs, a billion or six leaves, old stumps and, I guess, about 400 or so billets of locust, beech, maple and oak that will eventually go into the soapstone stove and up our chimney over the next couple of years.
About an hour ago we finished stacking the last of the red and white oak that will season over the next year and provide a good bit of our home heating in the winter of 2014-15. I've been splitting old rounds of maple and oak since early June, the last produce of the destructive winter of 2010 and its serial ice and snow storms that wrecked so many of the lovely old hardwoods on this farm. We had so much firewood, and so little chance to burn any of it after a summer lightning strike reduced our house (and our first soapstone stove) to ashes and molten lumps of hard stuff, that it has lasted us through the first two winters after rebuilding the new house. It still leaves us with a cord and a half of wood to start the upcoming heating season.
I've split a lot of wood over the years, much of it with maul and wedge, but more recently with the help of Messers. Briggs and Stratton and the miracle of the hydraulic ram. It's the kind of gizmo every old boy loves: It's painted red, it makes a big racket and it makes smaller stuff out of bigger stuff. And when you finish, the idea of a cold beer sounds real good.
A lot of the stuff was near our house, and most of that stuff was maple, beech and locust — including a fair amount of dead locust. Locust makes fine firewood, if the carpenter ants or whatever they are haven't already reduced it to powder. I spent a couple weeks splitting the stuff near the house, loading it onto a trailer and hauling it to our woodlot to be stacked. A lot of the locust looked like ant resorts, so much of that went to the burn pile. No sense in bringing the ants inside for the winter, however briefly before burning.
A week ago I got to the brawnier stuff down by the barn — white oak and red oak, mostly. Some veteran loggers and ministers of the home fires will swear that white oak is a lot better firewood than red oak — smells better and burns better, but is somewhat harder to split than red. Here's my take on it: Maybe so, but the sheer pleasure of splitting red oak makes up for a lot, and properly seasoned, it burns just fine in my stove.
You'll find on the Net all kinds of advice about splitting wood and burning it. Some say splitting white oak is a lot easier if you wait until if freezes, but I found this gem: "Waiting till the 3rd full moon of the 5th month while the cicadas are singing doesn't seem to make any difference in how it splits." I agree. It's stringy and sometimes splintery, but neither Mr. Briggs nor Mr. Stratton complain overlong about it. So, like Admiral Nelson, I just go at it until it's done.
Red oak, on the other hand, will practically pop open if you hit it just right with a maul, and it splits smooth as silk on the log splitter. I put 20-inch logs on it and the engine barely burped before producing a clean, straight-grained cut. I nibbled some billets down to nearly square logs that made the stacking a heck of a lot easier on the old bad back and bad knees and bad arthritic hands that do the work around here.
So, as of mid-morning, I'm done for the year when it comes to cutting, splitting and stacking. And I'm thinking seriously about that beer. Trouble is, the one I want is down in Greensboro, where they make Red Oak lager. Figure I can be down there in time for a late lunch, if only I could persuade these off-duty knees to get up and go, the slackers.
Update: Originally I called it Red Oak ale, but the good folks at Red Oak straightened me out: It's lager, which may be why I like it so much. Bill Sherrill writes:
"Red Oak is the Largest Lager Only Craft Brewery in America … We have never brewed an ale nor will we. Our Lagers are brewed with Heritage Malted Barley, Noble Aroma Hops, and Lager Yeast from Weihenstephen in Bavaria … The oldest brewery in the world … They have been brewing there since at least 1040 AD."