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A stand at the woodpile.

That haphazard mound of beetle-girdled splits in my yard is much more than winter heat.

By neighbor commented the other day that my woodpile good. I thanked him and replied that I probably knew more about that woodpile than I should. I said I could show him the places where every one of those cut and split-up trees had lived on the hillside behind my house.

I could also have shown him the snags I'd left on the hill that were or would become homes to insects, nesting birds, cavity-digging birds, and even secondary cavity-nesting birds. These uses were aside from the snags' more transitory potential as scratching posts for bobcats and bears or hunting perches for goshawks and great horned owls.

What I didn't tell my neighbor was that I hadn't left the snags out of any lofty environmental ideals. I'd left them because they were just too big for me to handle. Practicality is one of the cornerstones of the natural world, and in this case all parties concerned benefited.

I have this notion that people who choose to heat with wood should go out into the woods and get it themselves. I like the idea of grunting, sweating, and hollering the logs onto the truck. I also like the idea that alongside practicality in nature you find intimacy.

Intimacy goes both ways. In the big sense it's as simple as everything belonging to everything else in the same way that you wouldn't hesitate to give your relatives or friends your spare kidney if they needed it. It's the sense that we're all feeding off each other in one way or another.

Small-time intimacy has more to do with knowledge. Take splitting wood. If you are going to heat with wood, you should know the pure smell that comes when you split open a round of, say, Douglas-fir. I have Douglas-fir on the mind because that is the wood I've been taking off the hillside behind the house. Most of it was finally killed by the Douglas-fir beetles that have raised havoc among northslope-dwelling Doug-firs along the Front Range of Colorado where I live.

I say finally killed" because most of the Dougs along the range were getting up in years and were susceptible to the tussock moths or spruce budworms that initially defoliated and weakened them. This made them vulnerable to the beetle invasion. Actually, you can find an entire orchestra of causes that range from extreme cold snaps to lack of forest fires to root rot. The beetles are just the final movement of the symphony-and what a finale they are.

I peel bark off the dead logs to look for the beetles' egg galleries-the designs they bore into the cambium or phloem to lay their eggs in. Different species of wood-boring beetles have their own signature egg-gallery designs. The galleries of the mountain pine beetle wind and crisscross each other, spruce beetles' galleries go straight up and down with short egg-laying chambers off to the side, Douglas-fir beetles' galleries run parallel to the wood grain, with egg chambers fanning out at right angles. All the beetles produce a fine sawdust called frass as they bore the galleries.

If beetles have unique signatures, so do the various woods. Douglas-fir is straight-grained and literally pops off the chopping block when split with a maul. Ponderosa pine can be fibrous, gnarly, and knotted to the point that a wedge is sometimes necessary to open it. Juniper is easy when there are no knots, and a nightmare when there are. Either way, its aroma is delicious. Larch from up north in Idaho and Montana is so cooperative that you can split a 2 1/2-foot-diameter round with a hand axe.

Woodpiles have always been a measure of their creators. Here in the Rocky Mountains, our tendency is to throw split wood helter-skelter into enormous piles. It might be construed as an expression of our independent, even anarchist, temperaments when compared to Easterners with their more fastidious wood stacks. The explanation could also be as simple as the fact that we have more space out here. We can afford to have piles of wood here and there in the driveway and still have room to park the car.

No matter how it is piled or stacked, split wood is one of the few visible forms of security left in the United States. I recall late summer and early autumn evenings when my sweetheart and I have sat on an unsplit round of wood and simply admired our woodpile. This is our winter heat-on the hoof, so to speak. There it sits for us and the world to see. It just wouldn't be the same to go and sit in front of the gas meter or below a solar panel on the roof. Wood is wood, and it was alive not so very long ago. We can relate to that and go a little way into the world of plants.

Wood is alive in other ways, too. A raccoon has been messing around on one end of the pile. Juncos like sitting on top of the split fir, and woodrats live among the logs. If you think warblers or Empidonax flycatchers are hard to identify, try sitting by your woodpile with a copy of Burt and Grossenheider's A Field Guide to the Mammals, trying to figure out which woodrats live there.

Even in the middle of winter, when I've tired of hauling wood into the house and long for spring, the wood will find a way to talk with me. There will be an especially cold night when I'm trying to decide if a mix of oak and pine or maybe fir and a little of the hardwood I bartered some juniper for will make the warmest fire. It's at that moment I'll come across a piece of Douglas-fir with a particularly artistic egg gallery engraved on it. I'll remember the tree it came from and where that tree lived in the forest.

Sure, burning wood isn't for everyone. There are some urban areas with air-pollution problems where it may even do more harm than good. Some people would like to ban woodburning altogether. The reasons range from preventing air pollution to maintaining what is perceived as the forest's natural integrity. It makes a strange sort of sense in terms of a new environmental doublespeak that's become increasingly common.

Why speak for yourself when there is a group that can speak for you?

I've chosen to make a stand at the woodpile. I've decided to take personal responsibility. I'll happily live in my 800square-foot home and heat it with wood rather than move into that roomy 2,000-squarefoot natural-gas-heated suburban number down the road, even though I covet the additional room. It's a fair environmental exchange-not painless, but fair.

Burning wood is good for me right now. When it is no longer practical, for whatever reason, I'll stop. So what if once again I find myself eco-politically incorrect.

For now, I need the intimacy. The touch and feel of things. The process. I like seeing the woodpile big and bold in late summer and early fall and small and strung out in springtime. If anything, it is a good reflection of the way things work in the forest behind my house. I'm a sucker for the ups and downs of the seasons.

I need to be close to all these things. As environmental politics get more and more balkanized and cerebral, it might pay to go out back and split some wood.
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Title Annotation:Essay; on burning wood for heat
Author:Engle, Ed
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Paradise burning: how to live with wildfire.
Next Article:Adventures of a big-tree photographer.

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