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Country Gentleman: The comforting sight of stacked firewood in autumn

Autumn foliage is seen in Shinano, Nagano Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the C. W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

A comforting sight in the countryside is neatly stacked firewood. However, this year especially, one of my personal concerns has been dealing with the huge amount of logs piled on our land. They are in lengths of 150 centimeters, ready to be cut shorter to fit a wood stove, with thicker logs to be split before the whole lot is stacked. My staff and I have already prepared this coming winter's supply, but I estimate that if handled properly, we still have about three-years-worth of a supply to deal with. A lot of work and time!

Most of the wood is false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia) planted over 30 years ago, when I was raising honeybees. False acacia produces fragrantly sweet nectar. When we decided to build a horse lodge on this particular plot of land, the false acacia were cut down, although we did leave the horse chestnut, chestnut and cherry trees that were planted at the same time. They are now growing beautifully with lots of blossoms, cherries and nuts!

False acacia provides excellent firewood, as hard as mahogany and giving the heat equivalent of coal if properly dried. Even though false acacia, originally an American tree, is often considered an invasive species here in Japan, I selected it because it grows fast and has lovely blossoms that also make delicious tempura. It is a leguminous tree that fixes nitrogen in the soil through nodules in its roots. However, we needed more open space for paddocks, and the bark and leaves of false acacia are toxic to horses. We'll have to be diligent in cutting new shoots that grow from the roots still left in the ground.

In our horse lodge clubroom attached to the stables, we installed a modern American wood stove. In the country, I think it's wise to use firewood if you can. Modern wood stoves are more efficient and give off less smoke than older types of fireplaces, and after all, we grow our own trees, many of which have to be trimmed and thinned to allow the forest to grow with diversity and health. Harvesting trees on-site means that we hardly use any "fuel miles" -- the actual financial and carbon dioxide cost of transport.

Country wisdom says that firewood warms you several times: First when you cut down the trees, then when you chop, split and stack the logs and finally when you burn them.

When I first built our house back in 1983, I installed a British wood-burning kitchen stove that had an oven and a water jacket. With a good fire burning in the stove, a small electric pump circulated hot water to the kitchen, the bathroom and through radiators all over the house. This used a lot of wood, but the house was warm and comfortable.

In those days, still in my 40s, I split all of our firewood by hand, using a heavy Canadian splitting maul. Now in my 70s, it is far less work to use a log splitting machine with a small gasoline engine. It's not so good for exercise, but a lot easier on old bones! I must admit that the engine is noisy, and that I sometimes miss working out frustrations or bad temper by swinging that heavy maul and smashing through a thick log, but we still have to stack the firewood by hand.

Acorns are dropping on my study roof and the leaves are beginning to change color. Does anybody feel like some warm sake? ("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol.)

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