Nothing makes winter feel right to me any better than the smell of wood or coal smoke riding on the breeze when I step out onto the front porch on these ultra-brisk January mornings.
And, yes, I do realize that this is old news to faithful, longtime, readers of my drivel. However, I’m getting to be old enough that I feel I should be allowed a bit of eccentricity. A tad of being redundant is my choice for today with the assumption that I will not be, editorially, called to task.
While it is fairly commonplace to catch the aroma of wood smoke on cold, snowy evenings here in Lowell Branch Valley, it is a rarity in the mornings since the late Mrs. Rena Vae Callihan passed over to the other side a few years back. Rena Vae actually heated her home mostly with Barbourville coal, but every once in awhile she would throw a load of hickory firewood into the mix to sweeten the smoke and our little valley would smell like winter on Blair Branch all over again.
Mrs. (everybody around here called her “Miss”) Callihan was the last person in my acquaintance who totally depended on her coal and wood burning heating stove for winter comfort. My younger brother, Keeter, there in the Letcher County community of Red Star, still heats his home with a big Buck wood burner, but he has electric backup for those infrequent times when he runs out of wood or the temperature drops down so low that his big stove fails to keep Nancy (Mrs. Keith) as warm as she would like to be.
Just last weekend, Keeter called to regale me with a tale of finding a big white oak and a couple of hickory trees that a storm had taken down a few years back, way up on the mountain behind his mother-in-law’s home. Seems the gas company had cut a service road around the mountain that would accommodate Ketter’s old Chevy 4WD pickup. He owns the property which, he says, had, heretofore, only served one purpose and that was to give him something else on which to pay taxes.
But now that he has easy access to tons of already-seasoned firewood, you’d have thought he had discovered a large vein of gold, such was my brother’s enthusiasm as he got off track to tell me how to properly sharpen a chainsaw to keep it from cutting sideways.
In an effort to keep up with Keeter I was attempting to tell him of my own woodcutting experience with my old buddy, the late Junior Helton. Junior also owned a mountain of many acres which, for nearly two decades, supplied the oak and hickory wood with which we heated our homes.
Sometimes when we went squirrel hunting in Junior’s woods we would throw an axe or a hatchet in the back of the truck. When one of us beat the other back to the truck after a morning of stalking gray tails, the early quitter grabbed the tool, stepped into the edge of the woods and used it to deaden an oak or hickory that we could get a truck back to when we commenced cutting and hauling firewood. We simply removed the bark in a circle about a foot wide around the base of the tree trunk and left it standing.
Come the following spring, the tree did not grow leaves or anything else and by winter it would be dry, well-seasoned and much easier to fell and manage than if it were still green and full of sap. It would also weigh about half what it would have, had it been harvested while still alive. And if you don’t understand the importance of lighter weight, you obviously haven’t had any experience in cutting and handling firewood.
I am assuming that one of my downwind neighbors, perhaps Charlie Gruen or Dr. Ed Brents, simply stoked up their stoves enough to burn all night and that one or both of them woke up to the warmth and coziness of wood heat this morning. I’m relatively sure that both of them have stoves or fireplaces that enable this rapidly diminishing form of creature comfort, not because they need them but rather because they simply enjoy building a fire from time to time whenever the notion suits them
Loretta and I don’t have a fireplace or a woodstove in our home anymore. But for nearly 20 years we didn’t have a choice about whether or not to cut wood because it was either do that or freeze and, since we had youngens in the house at the time, we opted to hit the woods and stoke the old Fischer Mama Bear two or three times a day between mid October and the first of June.
So now, when I get up early and breath in the pleasant aroma of a neighbor’s fireplace smoke, I do not hold a single shred of envy. I do admit that I enjoy the atmosphere while, at the same time, thinking to myself, “ Thank goodness, I don’t absolutely have to do that anymore.”