Firewood sits in a German holz hausen-style stack in in a Machiasport yard. Credit: Courtesy of Howard Bjornson

Stacks of firewood in Down East Maine are as ubiquitous as seagulls seeking slivers of winter sunlight on coastal waters.

They are everywhere.

And where every cut log waits — neatly stacked or randomly thrown onto a pile — it knows its days are numbered. It also knows there is an ax lurking somewhere to make quick work of it all.

There is a definite art to chopping and stacking firewood.

It takes practice to cleave the wood in two. Over the last couple of years I have chopped away in the attempt to master that ever elusive eye-hand coordination I heard so much about when I was a kid: “Just keep your eye on the …” Miss, whack, miss, split. One log falls open and drops to the ground, now smaller subsets of itself.

Once cut and split, the chore of stacking the wood begins. There are many Down East ax wielders unaware of their artistic prowess when it comes to stacking firewood. The stack sometimes is creatively arranged to benefit the drying process. It also confirms the long-standing relationship between people and trees.

Trees do not ask for much — a little room, a little light, and a little rain now and again — in order to thrive and grow tall. Here in Down East Maine, maple, oak, pine, cedar, and the exclamatory birch that is forever smiling from inside a densely packed spruce forest are abundant. They take in everything and then give back for us to take and nourish our body, our soul. And in the end, heat a family home.

The woodpile is a stack of time. The breaths of life that lived day-by-day are held within coiled rings of memory. A tree’s root system is like an ancestry chart moving outward and downward into the soil. To follow it back to the base of the trunk is to move backwards through time. Collectively, trees provide comfort to other trees in distress and leave seedlings behind to continue their story. Trees are signposts to both our past and our future. Try to remember that when you grab that next log to drop gently onto the fire.

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The way people stack firewood is as random as the winds along the coast. Chunks of wood neatly parked between two trees, on metal or wood racks that serve as sentry bookends, or in a random pile collecting air and sunlight in the driveway or backyard next to the chicken coop.

For stackers short on space with a penchant towards the unusual, there is the Norwegian Round and the German Holzhausen. Both are circular structures made of split firewood filled with more split wood and finished with a capped roof of firewood bark side up to keep it all dry.

Firewood is stacked off the ground to allow those Down East winds and warming sunlight to hasten the drying process. Split wood will sit and dry for six months or longer until it’s ready to safely burn. Then it is brought into the house and stacked again close to the hearth or wood stove where it will eventually give back all it has taken in over the course of its life. Shel Silverstein had it right when he wrote that classic children’s book, “The Giving Tree.” In the end, a tree is unchecked altruism in its purest form.

Growing up in a city in Pennsylvania, there was a different woodpile that sat in my backyard. The wood was already milled in various widths and lengths when it arrived. To my young eyes, it was a geometric puzzle of board feet waiting to become something. Covered in thick, musty smelling canvas, the pile of wood was a spaceship in a six year-old’s imagination; then a tank when I turned seven. Each year the stack would grow smaller, challenging my creative acumen, until one summer it was all gone.

That stack of wood became an enclosed patio extending from the house into my backyard. Over time, it became a space for many family gatherings where stories would be told. I imagine somewhere in the ceiling rafters, shadows of those stories still mingle today. The same can be said of the trees that we turn into houses for wildlife, lumber for homes and the roofs over our heads, and the split logs that give us warmth from hearth and stove.

My wife has asked me: If the wood is already cut and split when delivered, why split the wood again? In addition to the exercise it provides, I like the time it affords me to be outdoors. Surrounded by trees and a small creek with its sound rolling by just over my shoulder, I steady a log on the stump and think of that woodpile from when I was a child. The thump of the ax blade to wood amidst nature provides a dual synchronicity of me spending thoughtful time in nature, and of a tree giving something back in return.

It’s just one quiet interlude from the noise that often is very loud as we go about our days. Chopping wood will not solve the ills of the world. But for just a moment, the act of chopping wood and then stacking it straight, neat and with intent gives me the solace and strength to just maybe keep those ills at bay one more day.

RJ Heller, BDN Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.