The best wood for a roar­ing fire

As the nights draw in, there’s noth­ing cosier than a crack­ling log fire or warm­ing wood­burner. Woods­man Vin­cent Thur­ket­tle pro­vides a guide to choos­ing wood for the per­fect blaze

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

Fired up with en­thu­si­asm: woods­man Vin­cent Thur­ket­tle has a pas­sion for real fires. He cuts his own logs to cre­ate hearty blazes that heat his home

It is said that fire was the tele­vi­sion of the an­cients. But who were the first peo­ple to sit watch­ing their evening fires? World mythol­ogy has many leg­ends of how we came to have fire; in­ter­est­ingly, it came from the sky in most of th­ese sto­ries. But the truth is far more won­der­ful. The dog may well be man’s best friend, but our old­est friend is fire.

Ev­i­dence is grow­ing that we had fire long be­fore we were ac­tu­ally hu­man. Many an­thro­pol­o­gists now be­lieve that it was al­most two mil­lion years ago that our early ho­minid an­ces­tors first learned to tame wild fire, to do­mes­ti­cate it and reap the re­wards of light, warmth, pro­tec­tion and cooked food. Cu­ri­ously, it is the last of th­ese ben­e­fits that pro­vides the best ev­i­dence.

While early hearth sites have been stud­ied by ar­chae­ol­o­gists, cen­turies of wind and rain have caused most to melt back into the en­vi­ron­ment and be­come in­dis­tin­guish­able from the burnt re­mains of nat­u­ral fires. The fur­ther we go back, the harder it is to say whether a slight hol­low with scorched earth and char­coal frag­ments is a hearth or sim­ply the re­mains of a burnt-out tree stump. The phys­i­cal ev­i­dence for very early, de­lib­er­ate fire sites is sparse and of­ten ten­u­ous and many sci­en­tists now be­lieve that the best ev­i­dence for the ear­li­est use of fire is in fact not the hearth sites at all – rather, it’s us, the hu­man mind and body.

We have small mouths and teeth and a short di­ges­tive tract when com­pared to the other pri­mates. It seems that our bod­ies may have

phys­i­cally adapted to con­sume cooked food. Cook­ing meat and plants breaks down starch and pro­teins, making it eas­ier to ab­sorb the food en­ergy. This pre-di­ges­tion of our raw food through cook­ing al­lows the day’s en­ergy re­quire­ment to be ab­sorbed much more quickly. It’s been cal­cu­lated that a hu­man would need to eat for 9.3 hours a day if all of the day’s food was eaten raw and un­pro­cessed. Re­searchers have ob­served that non­hu­man pri­mates spend an av­er­age of 48% of their day eat­ing, com­pared to only 4.7% for hu­mans. Th­ese dif­fer­ences in our body’s di­ges­tive sys­tem are strong ev­i­dence of an unimag­in­ably long re­la­tion­ship with cooked food and the curious phe­nom­e­non of fire.

But it is not just a phys­i­cal adap­ta­tion: we are mentally dif­fer­ent, too. Even to­day, peo­ple tend to sit around a camp­fire in a cir­cle – which is fun, but not im­por­tant. But just imag­ine the ef­fect on our nascent so­cial de­vel­op­ment to sit and face each other for hours each evening. The mas­tery of fire had length­ened our day; sun­set no longer her­alded a time of preda­tors and fear, dark­ness no longer held do­min­ion – and our species blos­somed.

Fire was stag­ger­ingly im­por­tant to the de­vel­op­ment of mod­ern hu­mans and even to­day has an es­sen­tial role in our lives – we still de­light in the joy, warmth and self­suf­fi­ciency that a full wood­shed prom­ises as the nights draw in and win­ter ar­rives. This time­less spe­cial re­la­tion­ship is why we love to watch danc­ing flames, or pick up the aro­matic tang of wood smoke in the evening air – fire may well have been the TV of our dis­tant an­ces­tors, but it is still so much more than just a quaint en­ter­tain­ment.

HOW TO BUY FIRE­WOOD

With ex­pe­ri­ence, buy­ing the fire­wood you need each year will be­come rou­tine. In the early days, how­ever, it is worth hav­ing a check­list (see right) as, of all heat­ing fu­els, buy­ing logs can be the most com­pli­cated. Ini­tially you should de­cide if you want to buy your logs dry and ready to burn, or ‘green’ to be stored while they dry out; this process is called sea­son­ing. You also need a clear idea of how much fire­wood you’ll burn through the win­ter and whether you have the room to store it all. Lastly, and of­ten missed, let the merchant know whether the logs are for an open fire – and so should not con­tain species that are prone to throw­ing sparks (such as sweet chest­nut and most conifers) – or for a wood-burn­ing stove, where some sparks don’t really mat­ter.

GATH­ER­ING WOOD IN THE WILD

There are very rare in­stances where the right to gather fire­wood comes with the house. In all other cases, ask. It is also a mat­ter of de­gree. Most wood­land man­agers would not ob­ject to a fam­ily gath­er­ing a few kin­dling sticks or pine cones while out walk­ing, but if some­one is fill­ing their car with road­side wood, the man­ager’s ap­proach will be rather dif­fer­ent. Foresters of­ten store felled wood at the road­side, per­haps for months – it is not waste, nor for­got­ten.

Fire­wood can be gath­ered from less ob­vi­ous places, such as beach drift­wood or sawn waste in skips. A huge amount of waste wood ends up in land­fill. The Gov­ern­ment de­cided against ban­ning this prac­tice in 2013 and many skips still con­tain a pro­por­tion of good fire­wood. Again the rule is to ask the owner, but this time it is

also im­por­tant to en­sure that any wood re­cov­ered is free of paint, preser­va­tives or pes­ti­cides – if there is any doubt, don’t burn it. Salt-laden drift­wood is also to be treated with care. The oc­ca­sional piece is fine, but be aware that you are in­tro­duc­ing highly cor­ro­sive sea salt into your metal wood stove and chim­ney sys­tem.

STOR­AGE AND SEA­SON­ING

As win­ter bites, it feels good to have a store full of well-sea­soned logs and know that, what­ever na­ture or the mod­ern world throws at you – in storms, power cuts or short­ages – your home will be warm. But you need to be sure you have enough wood of the right qual­ity. I try to have at least 20% more logs than I think I will need – the cold late spring in 2013 re­in­forced this tac­tic. Know­ing how much to buy in is a mat­ter of judge­ment. If you don’t have the ex­pe­ri­ence, ask neigh­bours how much they burn; your chim­ney sweep or fire­wood merchant’s

“EN­SURE THAT LOGS ARE DRY BE­FORE BURN­ING THEM – AND MAKE SURE YOU DON’T RUN OUT”

opin­ion would be worth hav­ing, too. In fact, liv­ing with wood fires is a so­cial thing. It is good to get into the habit of talk­ing to any­body with the in­ter­est – you never know what new con­tacts or tips you’ll pick up.

The im­por­tance of sea­son­ing can­not be over­stated. Logs dried out to a mois­ture con­tent of be­tween 15–25% are said to be fully sea­soned. You can check this with a mois­ture me­ter – read­ily avail­able and easy to use. Dry­ing is very im­por­tant be­cause it takes a lot of heat en­ergy to boil off the mois­ture in wood – en­ergy that should in­stead be heat­ing your home. Ash logs will burn when freshly felled but have a mois­ture con­tent of about 35%: so a kilo of fresh ash logs con­tains roughly 0.35 litre of wa­tery sap, a lit­tle over half a pint. Just vi­su­alise the heat needed to boil this wa­ter away in a saucepan – what a waste.

FIRE­WOOD MAN­AGE­MENT

Two key as­pects of fire­wood man­age­ment are to en­sure that logs are dry be­fore burn­ing them; and to make sure you don’t run out. Once you get this right and have found a good sup­plier, you can have fun learn­ing the burn­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of logs from dif­fer­ent tree species. Var­i­ous tra­di­tional po­ems ref­er­ence th­ese traits. The Fire­wood Poem (right), sug­gests de­light­fully that: “Ap­ple wood will scent your room/With an in­cense-like per­fume”. Al­though verses such as this are a lovely as­pect of wood-burn­ing folk­lore, they were writ­ten for the open fire, of­ten dis­miss per­fectly good fire­wood and over-praise the au­thor’s favourites. Con­trary to the ad­vice in The Fire­wood Poem, ash is gen­er­ally over-rated, elm makes ex­cel­lent fire­wood and po­plar does not have a bit­ter smoke.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT Af­ter three decades as a for­est man­ager, Vin­cent has a life­time’s ex­pe­ri­ence of cut­ting logs and still pre­pares his own (bear in mind that it’s vi­tal to have the landowner’s per­mis­sion); stor­ing wood to sea­son re­duces its mois­ture con­tent so that it burns ef­fi­ciently; Vin­cent splits logs to the cor­rect size for his wood­burner; chip­ping logs into kin­dling with a hand axe

LEFT Vin­cent lights his stove, next to which is a com­fort­ing store of logs for the win­ter

BE­LOW On a dark, chilly evening there’s noth­ing finer than star­ing into a fire’s danc­ing flames and en­joy­ing the tang of woodsmoke

Vin­cent Thur­ket­tle is a woods­man who

grows Christ­mas trees and also prospects for

gold. He is au­thor of The Wood Fire Hand­book

(Mitchell Bea­z­ley, 2012)

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