The Fireplace and Firewood


See the video and stand by the fire!  Fireplace11-15-14

I suppose today’s column has nothing really to do with gardening except in a secondary way. Our subject is trees, firewood, fireplaces and the holiday season.  I have been thinking a lot about firewood lately. When I was a little boy around Christmas season, the fireplace was in constant use. The fire never went out. The fireplace was built into a large stone and brick wall in the middle of our house. The whole place was warmed by the heat from that fire.

One of my favorite authors, outdoorsman Robert Ruark, said of his house in Palamos, Spain, “It is pock marked with fireplaces.” (Ruark did not like modern central heating)  He continued, “I indulge my firebug tendencies to the extreme extent of how much wood we have on hand.”  Ruark was a romantic when it came to most things but especially wood fires. I think his Palamos home had six fireplaces! I have been rereading his famous book “The Old Man and The Boy”. Ruark remembered his youth and coffee made on a open fire that tasted of “branch water and woodsmoke.” He went on to say “ I’d rather live in the yard than in a house that didn’t have an open fireplace.’

There are, of course, beautiful fireplaces all over the world. Europe is full grand examples.  My wife says that there is an elegant fireplace in the Borromeo palace in northern Italy on the island of Isola Bella.  I myself don’t remember it for I was outside looking around the palace’s magnificent baroque gardens, but I take her word for it, for there was nothing shabby on Isola Bella.

But European fireplaces are not necessarily fancy. The continent is full of medieval castles that had fireplaces that were mostly utilitarian features…a place to cook and keep warm.  I once admired a fireplace in a Burgundy farm house kitchen where dairymen and their families have lived for centuries.The fireplace was cold when we visited but clearly supper had been cooked there the night before. Leabeth and I couldn’t help but wish we had been there.

When I think of fireplaces around the world. My mind does not need to drift as far afield as Europe.   The fireplace in the Queen Wilhelmina lodge in the Quachita mountains of Arkansa jumps to mind. When we visited, it was a snowy day and the fire was bright! Then there are the many fireplaces in the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. There is a fireplaces there  so large that I could park my little Toyota pickup in it!  Speaking of Fireplaces in Asheville, people have been sitting in front of the Grove Park Inn fireplace for more than a hundred years. When I was there I wanted to pull up a rocking chair and just stay!

But fireplaces need to be fed and that brings us to trees. Trees have several lives, you know. Their first life is that period of time when they live and grow in our world. Our urban landscapes are beautified and made livable by their presence. Out in the forest, trees are the habitat of all kinds of wildlife. Trees are absolutely wonderful. In their second life, we make our homes out of them, build furniture, musical instruments, even baseball bats.

In a tree’s second life, it can also be merely the fuel for burning in our fireplace. This may seem like a very lowly use of a tree, but I actually don’t think so. Men and women have stood by their fireplaces for thousands of years, warming themselves and cooking their meals. The fireplace has always been the center of man’s domestic world.

Finally, as you buy firewood (if you don’t go out and cut it yourself), you’ll come across the concept of a “cord” of wood right away.  A full cord is a whole lot of wood. It measures 4 feet high by 4 feet wide by eight feet long (4′ x 4′ x 8′) and has a volume of 128 cubic feet. And who has a fireplace that can hold logs 4 feet long? So, what is generally thought of as a cord of wood is really a face cord (sometimes called a rick), which is a stack of wood 4 feet high, 8 feet long, and some variable length in depth, generally 16 inches wide. So, a 16 inch wide face cord is equal to one-third of a full cord. Keep these quantities in mind when you are out shopping for firewood. By the way, if you have young children (or grandchildren), keep some smaller logs handy. My grandkids delight in helping their Papa carry in wood for the fireplace.

So, how does one choose the wood for your fireplace? The harder the tree’s wood, the more heat it will produce in the fireplace. Trees like the hickories, oaks, pecans and maples are at the top of the list for producing the most heat. While the eastern red cedar, black cherry and pines are at the bottom.  But heat is not the only thing to consider. The sugar maple throws sparks, as does the eastern red cedar and pines. The hackberry is notorious for its sparks. You can easily burn your house down with that tree.

There are those that think that fireplaces are dirty and smelly. I suppose that there is truth in this, but any worthwhile thing takes a little effort. Cleaning up the debris trail  between my wood pile,  back door and the hearth takes constant attention. But, none of this fazes me; I consider our fire place one of the happiest places in our home. It is worth the effort!

In some ways it’s a sad thing to burn a tree. I admit it. But it’s alright. Next time you stand by a fireplace to warm yourself, you’ll know deep down that this is one the tree’s many lives. I hope you get to warm yourself by a fire this holiday season. In a mystical sort of way, it is like bringing a part of the outdoors into your home.

…..Our fireplace here in Nacogdoches with cats as andirons. Sometimes these are called ‘log dogs’; but, somehow, I think that is not fitting for our two feline fireplace friends.

3 thoughts on “The Fireplace and Firewood

  1. Love it!!! Just washed the smoke smell off me from 3 days of campfires!!! The coat will also retain its pleasant fragrance for quite some time to remind me of this pleasant time. Another use of trees is to recycle the smoke smell….?

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