Scavenging Firewood

Tuesday 2010 10 19

For more than a year I had my eye on a pile of tree trunks near well house #1 on Crane Island common area. With our F-150 pickup temporarily on the island, it made sense to consider cutting them into 16″ sections and bringing them back to the house, about ¼ mile away, for splitting, stacking, and then burning this winter in our wood stove, to supplement our inefficient electric baseboard heating.

A sunny October day. The grass – intensely green, soft, luxurious – in the field adjacent to where the logs lay. Why don’t the island deer browse here rather than trying to find a way into Yvonne’s garden?

But what about burning wood? Isn’t that polluting – adding CO2 and particulates to the atmosphere. Shouldn’t the logs be allowed to return to the soil? Are they a feeding station for birds? Why not let them act as nurse logs to the next generation?

Letting the logs rot would have the same effect as burning – in that carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere. In either case, it’s certain that other trees will grow on Crane and pretty quickly recapture CO2 that was sequestered in the logs. If the wood is burned hot in a modern wood stove, not much particulate matter is released – no smoke is visible. And it seems to make sense to use a local heat source rather than electricity or propane that has to be transported long distances at significant effort, expense, and impact on the environment.

Ten trunks, the largest 18″ and the smallest about 6″ – Douglas fir, alder, western red cedar, and ? – each about 10′ long. A Douglas fir stump stood nearby, broken off about 8′ up, the source of one of the trunks in the jumbled pile.

Logs waiting for attention at the old water tank
Logs waiting for attention at the old water tank

Where did they come from? Who cut and stacked these trunks and left them to rot? Why? At least three were deadfalls, toppled in winter storms onto the common area meadow. Perhaps Jim J. or Tom T. or Gary S., our water system manager, had been involved. But since no one wanted the logs, they were fair game for an island scavenger.

Douglas fir has thick bark, fire protection I think, is very strong, used often for construction framing, but has a beautiful grain as well that lends itself to trim, door, and moldings. They grow like weeds in the Pacific Northwest – in the rain forest to 8′ diameters and 300′ high.

Alder, a deciduous tree with gray bark, related to aspen, birch, and beach, is brittle, and breaks easily. On the ground they rot much more quickly than Douglas fir. Often growing in wet areas, in clumps, and in peculiar shapes, they look junky next to straight and elegant Douglas firs.

Cedar trees are wonderful. Rather than spiky, its needles are flat and soft to the touch with the pattern of its bark running vertically. Cedar is particularly resistant to rot, thus its use in decks, posts, and other exposed wood.

Because I had to park my pickup 100′ from the pile of trunks, I brought along our dock cart to carry the cut sections from the pile to the truck. With a Poulon 18″ chainsaw (Yvonne’s $105 purchased at Sears “scratch and dent” store south of downtown Seattle) and gas and chain oil, I was ready to begin cutting.

Since some of the logs had lain there, on the ground, for several years I expected some to be too rotten and unusable and that turned out to be the case. Three fir and a single alder, wet, sporting dense, tough, clinging fungi, clearly weren’t worth the effort of cutting, moving, and splitting but the rest looked promising, if not perfect.

Besides the obvious cautions about chain saws and bodily harm, they require a certain amount of care. When cutting wood the blades will stay sharp through many trees but cutting into soil, sand, or gravel can ruin a chain quickly. So cutting trunks on top of other trunks isn’t a problem but trunks on the ground can be. How do you cut them through without ruining the chain – when you can’t roll or lift them?

The cedar, not surprisingly, was in the best condition, even with its bark peeling off. The alder, on the ground wasn’t usable. The fir, with an inch or two of rot on one side, looked usable.

Because these trunks had been down for several years, they were dryer and much lighter than fresh cut, live trees – and very easy to cut – the chain saw like a knife through butter. Cutting the cedar was a particular pleasure – because it’s highly aromatic – with a characteristic clean scent – perhaps what keeps insects, fungi, and microbes at bay.

But loading the cart, dragging it to the pickup, and tossing 30 lb sections into its bed, made me feel stiff, weak, and old – at least for a while until my muscles warmed up and stretched out. Mostly it felt good to be outside in the autumn sunshine in a beautiful place with no one around using a very manly power tool and knowing that we would have plenty of firewood to be cozy this winter.

After about three hours of effort and two truck trips, I had a pile of trunk sections piled at the foot of our Ranger sailboat – out of the water and on its trailer for the winter. The open question: would these sections split easily or were they too soft – so that the splitting maul would bury itself rather than force the wood apart and break the sections apart?

© 2019, johnashenhurst. All rights reserved.

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