What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, January 16, 2017

John McPhee's "Firewood"

Early last summer, Lorna and I bought four cords of dry, blocked, white birch from a local farmer to burn in our woodstove. We split it and stacked it ourselves, and covered it with a tarp. Carrying the wood to the stove, I pass a set of pine bookshelves that contain, among other items, my collection of John McPhee, including his great Pieces of the Frame (1975). In that book, there’s a New Yorker piece called “Firewood” (March 25, 1974) packed with interesting facts about trees and wood burning. For example, here’s a description of what actually happens when wood burns:

When a log is thrown on the fire, the molecules on the surface become agitated and begin to move vigorously. Some vibrate. Some rotate. Some travel swiftly from one place to another. The cellulose molecule is long, complicated, convoluted – thousands of atoms like many balls on a few long strings. The strings have a breaking point. The molecule, tumbling, whipping, vibrating, breaks apart. Hydrogen atoms, stripping away, snap onto oxygen atoms that are passing by in the uprushing stream of air, forming even more water, which goes up the chimney as vapor. Incandescent carbon particles, by the tens of millions, leap free of the log and wave like banners, as flame.

The piece also tells about three New Yorkers who visit Carmel, N.Y., to cut wood (“The saw started on the nineteenth pull. Its din shot up the air”), and it reports on an old New York City wood lot owned and operated by a firm named Clark & Wilkins (“Even the corporate records smell of smoke”).

My favorite passage in “Firewood” is the ending, a sort of wood fire prose poem:

A wood fire, in its core, in its glowing coals, could never be hot enough to be blue, but, at its hottest, it can be white, and orange-white. Subsiding, it becomes orange and orange-red and red and deeper red and dark red, until its light goes off the visible spectrum. The heat can be banked in ash, though, for eight, ten hours – long enough to last through the night and, in the morning, begin another fire.

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