The Simple Pleasure of Stacking Wood
There are some activities which connect us straight to our prehistoric ancestors. Nursing babies, weaving cloth, cooking food, spinning a story, scanning the starry firmament. And sitting in front of a fire.
Stare at the sparks and the hypnotic flickering of the flames draws you in. The warmth does more than seep into your body, it envelops your soul. The elemental magic involved in changing wood to embers, ash and smoke is something that has captivated us for millennia.
Old vine cuttings are whipped together into spiky armfuls, ready to ignite fuel in winter woodstoves and cavernous open fireplaces.
Since moving to Italy, many moons ago, I have relished the ritual of getting wood for the fire. Collecting sticks and twigs and gathering them into bundles for kindling is immensely satisfying. Throughout the year, I will pick up dried fallen branches and pile them up, ready to be transferred to the woodshed.
Ah yes, the woodshed. We have a woodshed. Even saying it is thrilling. It’s a small space at the back of our farmhouse in Tuscany, made of brick with a terracotta tiled roof and an old stable door to keep out the rain. There are gaps at the top and sides to allow the wood to air and dry.
Local people take great pride in arranging wood. Walk through any village or past any cottage and you will see a neatly arranged stack of small sticks and big logs. Old vine cuttings are whipped together into spiky armfuls, ready to ignite fuel in winter woodstoves and cavernous open fireplaces.
When a massive storm tumbled its way through the garden a few years ago I stood and watched as decades-old trees began to sway. To my horror the ground itself began to move as the roots of several pines were rocked by the wind. We lost five or six gigantic trees that day. It’s the first time in my life I have seen a tree fall over in front of my eyes. As someone who cries when watching tree- felling on TV, feeling each cut like it’s my own body being ripped apart, I was devastated.
I called my friend Enrico, who brought his chain saw and, in a morning, giants that had graced the sky were transformed into jumbles of logs, dotted all over the field. The smell of pine was sharp, the sticky sap still oozing like tears from the branches.
It took days to move the logs to the woodshed but the fuel these casualties of the storm provided lasted us two winters. Pine is not the ideal wood to use, it burns too hot and fast, but it was free wood and it seemed a fitting use of the poor trees.
There is something very primitively satisfying in this basic act of making provision.
This year we have bought wood — oak and chestnut logs because that’s what the locals use. It burns well and means the woodstove stays in all night, which it never did with the pine. We faced the daunting task of moving the pile of logs into the woodshed, but were determined to tackle it barrowload by barrowload because Beppe, who had cut and delivered the logs, predicted rain and we needed to get them inside.
We worked steadily for two mornings, loading up the barrow, wheeling it to the woodshed, stacking the logs in rows, going back to the pile. We were participating in a ritual going on all over Tuscany, because even houses in the towns have woodburners and fireplaces, so you will see heaps of unruly logs spilling out on the pavement between parked cars in the early morning after the logs have been delivered. By mid-morning they have disappeared, quickly stashed into cantinas (cellars) or lugged upstairs for those poor souls who have no other storage.
We stood and looked at our wood, safely stored in the woodshed, proud of the hard work done in order to prepare for winter. There is something very primitively satisfying in this basic act of making provision. The repetitive work of moving and stacking calms the frantic mind and soothes the spirit. It connects us with our forebears in a most fundamental way. It gives you back something which has been lost in our digital age: the simple pleasure of hard physical work handling natural material in order to ready your home for the coming season. I think there’s a lesson there.