Annie Calovich

December 21, 2013

Come warm yourselves by the fire

“Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate.”

“Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate.”

– G.K. Chesterton

Happy first day of winter. If you’ve been feeling the gloom of winter cold, take comfort: Just in time for Christmas, the days start getting longer Sunday.

The warmth of a wood fire is another source of cheer, if you’re fortunate enough to have a wood-burning fireplace. (Some of us unfortunates without a flue have been forced to go virtual with electric flames, fir incense and crackling-log CDs.)

Many people in these parts, of course, buy their firewood, and the Sedgwick County Zoo is once again making firewood available for free this winter. (The hitch is that it’s freshly cut by Westar Energy and city of Wichita crews in their tree-trimming work; that means that the wood you gather from the zoo parking lot this year must dry out and season for a year before you can use it – next winter.)

But people who live in more serious winter climes and who have access to wood are like gardeners who grow their own food: They receive another comfort in the actual gathering of their own wood.

I was warmed to read a story recently from up north: the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, Minn. The story was about not only people who live in that cold clime but touched on practices in Norway, where last winter, “a kerfuffle erupted ... when a TV program about firewood panned across some woodpiles. Viewers were aghast, half griping that some logs were stacked with the bark facing up, while the other half were incredulous that some were stacked bark down.

“The 12-hour show, based on Lars Mytting’s bestselling book ‘Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood – and the Soul of Wood-Burning,’ featured four hours about chopping and stacking techniques, then eight hours of a live shot of a burning fire. Rapt viewers – about half of Norwegian households have fireplaces or wood stoves – watched as hands occasionally replenished the fire, cooked sausages over the flames, even roasted marshmallows.

“(Norwegians, for the record, are big fans of what’s known as ‘slow TV.’ Other hits: a seven-hour trip from Oslo to Bergen viewed from a camera anchored to a train, and an 18-hour live-stream of salmon swimming upriver.)”

The story quotes Will Weaver, an author who lives near Bemidji, Minn., talking about how creating a woodpile is therapeutic.

“For me, it’s a way of creating order in the tug and pull of modern life,” he said.

“Weaver mused about how each stick of timber must be handled, eyeballed, stacked and nudged into a wooden rampart that will last a year or more,” the story says. “That the labor ends with an honest splinters-and-all woodpile before your eyes is immensely satisfying.”

“So many of our rewards are sort of invisible ones,” Weaver said. “We keep our money in the bank, but we keep our wood in the woodpile where we can see it.”

The story also quotes the Norway Post as noting that the repetitiveness of splitting and stacking allows a person to “imagine freely, or not think at all. Perhaps more important, it provides an opportunity to hit hard! The latter can save both marriages and bad peers.”

Weaver says the optimum temperature for splitting logs is between zero and 10-below. “The wood breaks apart like glass.”


Manual labor certainly imparts rewards that nothing else does. In advising people on how to build a wood pile, the Star Tribune story quotes Mother Earth News as saying to “ ‘build in as much air as you can, using irregularities and odd-shaped logs to create cross-stack channels for drying air.’ To keep a pile from toppling, build it against a stable object such as a tree or a fence post. ‘At free ends, build stable, square log cribs by alternating courses of north-south logs with east-west’ – like setting up to play Jenga.

“The Earthers, for the record, are bark side uppers.”

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death's dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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