By , March 20, 2011

We’ve mobilized to harvest firewood. Not only do we need to begin stockpiling fuel for the coming winter, we need to be ready to supplement our current supply, which has been radically reduced by the recent winter’s long cold spells.

A friend who had worked on road construction once explained the process to me. He said that a successive series of jobs needed to be performed in close conjunction, so that finished roadway appeared in a continuing flow. He described it as a dance, with each part of the process choreographed, in order to keep everything moving forward. This explains why there are so many men propped on shovels, apparently doing nothing, on road construction sites.

I see our firewood harvest as a very similar process. We can’t just go out and cut wood. We need to prioritize and coordinate our needs to make sure that every part of the process moves forward equally. It requires triage, or, if you will, “treeage.”

wind felled hemlock

This green windfall gets two cuts, one to sever the rootwad, the other to open the crown (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

Roughly, here are our priorities:

Dangerous trees
Living in the forest, rotten limbs and whole trees pose a threat, particularly when they’re close to the trail. In winter, ice and snow loads break healthy trees, often exacerbated by high winds. Our first order of business is to neutralize these threats as much as possible. This means dropping “hangers” and moving trail obstructions. All potential threats are prioritized; for instance, a large tree began to fall, but hung up in a small tree next to it. It hangs right over a trail, ready to fall when the right breeze hits. However, we almost never use that particular trail. We can safely wait for nature to bring the tree down, and direct our efforts elsewhere. If a “widowmaker” threatens our main trail, it gets first priority over any other job.

Green, damaged trees
We search for uprooted and broken trees in our woods. If we find any, we make one or two cuts only. The most important one severs the bulk of the tree from the roots, so that as spring advances, the sap won’t rise into the rest of the tree. Often, we cut off some of the top, if we can reach it; that will allow moisture to escape from the wood through residual capillary action. That’s usually as far as we go; we’ll leave the tree until it’s dried for a while. If we manage to fill the wood shed quickly, we’ll return to work on it afterward.

Our best hope for these trees are that they fall close to the ground without actually falling to the ground. Hanging in the air, these trees will dry much faster, without absorbing ground moisture. We monitor their progress by the condition of their needles or leaves.

Birch trees
Birch is our only true common local hardwood
. It’s our best firewood, burning far longer than the local spruce and hemlock, with a wonderful fragrance. However, these trees retain moisture incredibly well, requiring far longer curing time than our other fuels. Processing them as much as possible, and stacking them to dry long term is a big priority for us.

After birch, if all other conditions are equal, we target hemlock, then spruce. Hemlock seems to burn hotter and a bit cleaner than spruce, which is highly resinous.

Dead wood
This last category “floats” up and down the triage hierarchy, depending on our needs at the time. This spring, we’re concerned that the winter’s wood supply will soon be depleted. I’ve made sure that some part of each harvesting job involves cutting the driest dead wood we can find, to be immediately stacked in the woodshed in case it’s needed in the coming weeks.

Intermixed with these priorities are other considerations, such as straightness of grain and potential water heater fuel. We try to cull out rotten wood when possible. It doesn’t burn as well, and has an integral role in the forest’s ecosystem, so it’s best left on site. When we’re done with a tree, nothing goes to waste, one way or the other.

It may seem complicated, but keeping these needs in mind, and varying the focus of our efforts as we go, everything moves forward apace.

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