Grandpa Harry harnessed my fascination with flame by letting me manage the living room fireplace during holiday gatherings. While adults watched college football and discussed the state of the world, I rearranged logs and poked at latent coals to keep a steady blaze going.
On breezy fall afternoons, Grandpa and I scouted suburban landscapes for downed black locust trees.
“A winter’s worth of cured locust is like money in the bank,” Grandpa said. “You need at least three wedges to split a round, though. Count on the first two to get stuck in its twisted grain.”
Nowadays, I rely on windfall fir and pine to keep our cabin warm and cozy when a glaze of frost forms on windowpanes. Standing snags are left for woodpeckers and nuthatches to peck on. At bedtime, I shove a knotted log into the firebox, bank up coals, and let heartwood burn through the night. The pop and crackle of expanding pitch pockets lulls me to sleep.
A 100-year flood ravaged Blue Mountain streams and the surrounding landscape this past February. Two feet of water entered our cabin, the front porch was torn loose from the foundation and a perimeter fence bent to the ground. These things happen when vintage cabins are built on an ancient flood plain. Adding pain to misery, however, was arriving on the desolate scene to find three cords of precious firewood had floated away.
While I don’t consider myself tidy, each piece had been carefully organized according to size, shape, and burn rate.
Eight months of rebuilding and the cabin is livable again. However, for the first time in over a decade, I am tasked with buying winter fuel. The main entrance at a local tree service with a large sign, “Firewood For Sale,” prominently displayed was my first stop.
"What kind of wood do you have?" I ask the front desk clerk.
“We have two kinds,” she says. “One gives you flames and the other leaves coals.”
“That’s not what I meant.” I reply. “I know how wood burns. What species of tree are we talking about?”
“It’s a mix,” she replied.
Expanding my search to include the Nickel Ads, daily newspaper, and Craigslist, I find the average price for a cord of generic firewood is $180, split and delivered. Woodcutters are even more proud of tamarack and oak. While many sellers consider a pickup load of wood to be a cord, measurement of my double-cab, regular bed Tundra reveals a capacity of one-half cord to the top of the bedrails.
One promising ad offered a discount to seniors. Hoping to save a buck, I call to learn discount means them helping me load my truck. My frustration with messages not returned escalates as nighttime temperatures plummet into the 20s. I call the tree service back to find they are out of firewood.
“We’re taking orders for next spring,” the clerk said.
Desperate would be a good description of my mood when I finally connect with a seller via text message.
“What kind of wood do you have?” I ask.
The message comes back, “Mostly sycamore, pine and locust.” My interest piques. Unfortunately, a follow-up message says, “Sorry. It is Russian olive, not locust.”
Three days and two text messages later, I’m given a rural address and we settle on me picking up a pickup load of whatever firewood is available. Somewhere along the line, split and delivered got omitted from the deal.
I drive past scattered Russian olive and Lombardy poplar, goats grazing in worn pastures, fencerows half a mile long, and derelict vehicles parked where transmissions failed. I know moss grows on the north side of trees, the sun rises in the east, and rivers run downhill. However, nature’s clues provide no insight in a wide-open rural setting where my cellphone has no service and spur roads are not marked. I am not lost because I know where I am. It’s just that I can’t locate the given address. Given no greater shame than stopping to ask a stranger for directions, I drive on, hoping divine intervention will show the way.
Still without a clue, I turn around at the edge of civilization. Beside a graveled parking lot that fronts a lonely roadside tavern is a giant pile of split firewood. I park nearby and knock on the door of a doublewide trailer. A ceramic bear and a hand-painted sign, “Home is where the heart is,” grace the porch.
“Want to sell me $100 worth of firewood?” I ask the homeowner, pointing to the woodpile.
“Sure thing,” a tall man with a kind face replies. “Give me a minute and I’ll help you load it.”
I learn the man’s name is Jim, he never advertises, and that I passed the other wood seller’s address several spur roads back. Thrilled with my purchase, I drive to our cabin and spend the afternoon stacking and arranging firewood according to size, shape and burn rate. While doing so, I can’t help notice my new pile of wood has the familiar thick rough bark and twisted grain of black locust.