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February 2, 2018

Of woodchucks, soaring electric bills and 2 Phils

Photo/Lawrence Emerson
As the fuel cell shrinks to its last full rack, we worry about having enough to reach spring.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
It grows tiresome about this time each winter.

The constant toting of firewood and shoveling of ashes from woodstoves and fireplaces begins to lose its charm just as silly men in top hats yank that fat rodent from his hole in rural Pennsylvania to face a crowd of cameras and drunks.

Of course, Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow. Those powerful TV lights would produce shadows in a blinding snowstorm. We must assume clammy, cold conditions will envelop our patch of the planet until at least mid-March, global warming not withstanding.

So, we nervously scan the woodpile, aka the Hillbilly Fuel Cell. Will it last until spring?

None of this came naturally.

I grew up in town, in a small house with a “Franklin stove” that provided ambiance in my parents’ den but did little to hold down the fuel oil bill. My life changed a couple years out of college. Gonzo the dog and I moved into a 14-by-21-foot, one-room cinderblock cabin on a lake in Fort Valley, tucked between the ridges of eastern Shenandoah County.

The place had a flue in the back wall, single-pane windows and no insulation. As a naïve 24-year-old, I purchased my first woodstove for 129 bucks from the hardware store in Edinburg. Thus began an adulthood of cutting, splitting, stacking and schlepping dense chunks of cellulose for heat.

In the 37 years since, I’ve owned five more woodstoves and at least as many chainsaws. The cliché about firewood heating you twice — once when you harvest it and again when you burn it — rings true.

When Dominion Energy’s monthly bill drops our jaws, as it did last month, we take solace in the belief that without firewood, our electricity costs would soar much higher. Another wheelbarrow full, another couple kilowatt hours saved.

The annual firewood cycle consumes a significant chunk of my free time. In coming weeks, a handful of friends will begin to frequent our place to harvest next winter’s fuel.

Walking through the woods, I play god (with a small “g”), deciding who lives and who dies — at least when it comes to ash, oak, hickory and locust trees. The forest needs thinning and we need firewood.

So, with a can of spray paint in hand, I try to make intelligent decisions about giving space to the promising up-and-comers while taking the diseased and damaged. Our crew of desk jockeys has a perverse appetite for physical labor and the fruits thereof, even though we struggle to walk normally for several days after a weekend of this foolishness.

About half the 10-cord harvest will stay with us. The balance will go to sharecroppers’ woodpiles in Fredericksburg, Luray and Warrenton. By late April, we want to get out of the woods, leaving that territory to the snakes, ticks and thorns.

Over the years, we’ve tried to get safer and smarter. The equipment has improved a bit, and we’ve avoided disaster, despite a couple of close calls.

Fred’s attempt to cut off his foot decades ago, while working at home alone, provided a cautionary tale. It also produced Ellen’s Rule: No use of a chainsaw without someone else present.

Greg’s thick leather glove absorbed most of the damage a few years ago when the log splitter wedge caught his thumb during a two-man operation — never the way to operate that hunk of steel, of course.

Fred and I these days also wear chaps and logging helmets with face shields and built-in ear muffs.

Perhaps my greatest lesson in chainsaw operation came in October 1986. We’d gathered at the maternal family home place in a still-rural part of Spotsylvania for the weekend. My Uncle Phil, a well-known Richmond oral surgeon, always fancied himself as a country boy, having spent childhood summers on his uncle’s farm just up the road.

Uncle Phil decided a towering oak needed to come down. Tall and straight, it looked like an easy tree to drop as he began notching the base with his Poulan chainsaw. But, as he made the back cut, a strong gust of wind hit the top of the tree about 100 feet up.

It pushed the huge oak in the opposite direction, down the embankment, onto big electrical lines along Courthouse Road (Route 208).

From above, I watched two huge utility poles literally pop out of the ground.

Did I mention this took place just before the sixth game of the 1986 World Series — the one in which Billy Buckner booted an easy grounder to continue the Red Sox jinx with a 6-5 loss to the Mets?

The power company soon showed up and the embarrassment grew.

Uncle Phil, by then nearing retirement, visited the country store in Snell several years later.

The clerk looked at him and said: “You’re that Peters boy, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am.”

After a pause, the man added: “Cut down any trees lately?”

The story had spread widely among several thousand people in southern and western Spotsylvania who had missed Buckner’s Boot because of the widespread blackout.

So, every time I size up a tree to drop, I think about my late Uncle Phil, the wind and that day at Tenby Cottage.

At 61, I also wonder how much longer this can or should continue. Another decade seems reasonable to my hard head.

More frequently, however, this thought pops into my noggin and out of my mouth as two-cycle engines belch blue smoke and grandfathers around me strain to move big logs:

“I wonder what the smart people are doing today?”

The foolhardy among us keep cutting and splitting.

But, those TV ads for the Florida Keys look even more enticing this week.

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Baseball4life2223 · February 3, 2018 at 7:03 pm
When it was in the negatives and single digits constantly back in December for those couple weeks , wood heat kept us warm...and sure of it. Many of my friends were running on emergency heat, worrying about if the power goes out, and racking up the power bill. They asked how we were doing ? Its nice to be able to tell them your staying warm. That comes at a good price though, as stated in this story it does require alot of work and freetime to harvest your own supply of wood. I feel that some winters around here are so unpredictable, Its just a good idea to always be prepared in some way. I know not everyone has a wood stove, though to me there is no other form of heat more reassuring and reliable than wood heat when done right. Great story again, very captivating.
Jim Griffin · February 3, 2018 at 9:31 am
Please, more of this. Excellent writing from a unique and yet neighborly perspective.

Yes, we got the same Dominion power bills. Likely a stimulus for investment in solar, wind and micro-hydro.
BJ · February 2, 2018 at 2:17 pm
Good one! You'll have lots of Ash trees to pick from with the widespread death being caused by the Emerald Ash Borer. Yep, this electric bill was a "shocker" to say the least!

Blaine Johnson
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