types of White Pine firewood
Sunday, January 11 2009
Concrete pouring season ended over a month ago after temperatures fell consistently below freezing, but within the climate of the greenhouse, it's springtime again. With temperatures ranging from the mid-30s to the mid-50s, it's not the balmiest climate in the world, but it's definitely compatible with concrete pouring. This was a good thing, because I had some more concrete work to do in the greenhouse. As I've mentioned, the removal of soil and loose shale from the floor had undermined some of the foundation beneath the north wall, and I wanted to fill these voids with concrete. So today I mixed up about a cubic foot of wet concrete and glurped it into a set of makeshift wooden forms a couple inches in from the wall, building up a bench about five inches high and four feet long. It seemed like a good medium for a message coded in several layers of modern humanity's memes, so once the concrete was semi-hard, I scratched the number "2009" into its top surface. That's a European variant of an Arabic number representing the quantity of years since the birth of Jesus Christ as determined by Dionysius Exiguus.
Later I took some large sheets of inch-thick styrofoam (having an R value of 5) and glued it to the outside surfaces of the north and west walls, covering nearly all of the concrete blocks on those walls rising above the grade. Some day after the ground thaws, I hope to use all the dirt dug from the greenhouse pit to raise the grade to nearly the top of those concrete walls, burying nearly all of that styrofoam. One day the greenhouse will look like a glass-fronted knoll in the landscape. The new styrofoam is essential if I'm to use the block walls (which are filled with concrete and stone) as a thermal mass. Recent weather has been so cold that I've seen frost forming across the interior walls of the greenhouse, but hopefully the thermal isolation provided by the styrofoam will allow the blocks to rise to the more moderate temperature of, say, the shale bedrock floor.
At some point this evening Gretchen called and announced she was coming home from the City. This was a day earlier than I'd expected, and I was glad she warned me. I'd shoveled the five inches of snow out of the driveway this morning, but the house was the kind of mess to which no person should subject his or her significant other. There were numerous coffee mugs, forks, spoons, cooking pans, and nearly a dozen dirty bowls in the sink. The kitchen table was covered with tools and random supplies ranging from envelopes of pectin to SharkBite push-fit connectors (great for connecting pex to copper). The floor was littered with flecks of sawdust tracked in from both carpentry in the garage and firewood gathering outside. And there was also considerable mud from my frequent visits to the greenhouse, whose shale floor is impossible to clean and becomes its own kind of disaster once covered with tracked-in snow. So I launched a cleaning jihad, making the house far more presentable than it had been when Gretchen had left. I also made a special effort to stoke an especially hot fire in the woodstove to make the house cozy and inviting. It's always nice to come home to a well-maintained house.
I should mention an interesting set of facts I've learned from burning White Pine through the years. White Pine, like any wood, will dry nicely if cut and split into reasonably firewood-appropriate pieces (that is, pieces weighing less than 20 pounds each) and left to dry out of the weather. It's what happens to White Pine when this doesn't happen that interests me. I've encountered White Pine logs in several situations where the water content was noticeably higher than that of a freshly-fallen live tree of the same species.
For example, this fall I've been cutting up the tree that fell just east of our house in October of 2006. It had been a mature White Pine some sixty feet in height and fourteen inches in diameter. For the past couple years I'd mostly ignored the downed tree, initially thinking it would dry out on its own and that I should save it for a time when I might need an emergency firewood supply close to the house. But the pieces I've cut from it this fall have shown that the tree hasn't been drying out at all; if anything its wood has grown increasingly damp. When I split its logs, the compression of my wedge forces visible puddles of water from the wood as if it were a sponge. And once split, this old White Pine pieces don't dry quickly, even when placed against or on top of the woodstove. It will take a season in the woodshed for this wood to become a usable fuel. This drying behavior is very different from that of, say, oak or chestnut, which grows increasingly dry after it falls, even if left uncut and unsplit unprotected in the forest.
By contrast, the wood from the live White Pine that fell on the powerline two weeks ago splits without forcing out any visible moisture. And the resulting pieces are light in weight, further suggesting an absence a moisture. I've found that what little moisture they do contain can be driven from them in the course of a single day spent beside the woodstove. I know pieces dried in this way are seasoned because they burn without making the hiss of released steam (and the resulting fire is extremely hot). The nearly-fireplace-ready nature of freshly-felled White Pine is useful knowledge for the do-it-yourself self-sufficiencialist, particularly one who is more of a grasshopper than an ant.
There is only one form of dead White Pine that doesn't take up moisture from its environment: thin trees that die in place (and remain standing for years) after being overtopped by other trees in the forest. Such trees can be fifty feet tall but are seldom more than six inches thick. In this form they make for a perfect just-in-time fuel; indeed, wood cut from such trees burns so hot and fast that I reserve it for occasions when I either need to start a fire cold or dramatically raise the temperature of the house (for example, when guests are on their way).
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