Magazine article American Forests

A Stand at the Woodpile

Magazine article American Forests

A Stand at the Woodpile

Article excerpt

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. …

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