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.