Cutting firewood

For quite a few years I had the opportunity to participate in a community service project that we thought was unique. It started with a family who were thinning the trees on their property to make their place more resistant to fire and insect depletion. They didn’t have a need for all of the wood that was produced, so they bucked and split the wood and made it available for donation. We borrowed a pickup and a horse trailer and hauled a load to an energy assistance program on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The project grew from that single load to the delivery of hundreds of cords of split firewood delivered to multiple partners around South Dakota. We started with a borrowed wood splitter and through generous donations of trailers and other equipment grew the program to caravans of a dozen trucks and trailers delivering firewood up to 200 miles from our church. Part of the back yard of the church became a woodlot where logs were cut to length, split and stacked. After curing the firewood was delivered by volunteers who paid for their own fuel and supplies.

We made a point of keeping it simple. We didn’t have meetings. We didn’t do fundraising. What people donated we had. What they didn’t donate we did without. When we had a large crew we got a lot of work done. When we had a small crew, we did what we could. People weren’t pressured to participate. They came when they could and those who worked understood when others weren’t able to participate.

I speak of the project in the past tense only because I no longer live in Rapid City and am no longer a part of the project. It continues its ministry of delivering firewood to help people heat their homes.

I especially remember one trip to Wanblee on a cold, clear winter day. It was about -10 when we were stacking the firewood in the yard of the Catholic Church. We had a taste of the cold that the firewood was keeping at bay for the families who got some of the wood to heat their homes.

It turns out that we weren’t alone in our project. Community wood banks have sprouted in several locations around the country. The New York Times recently did a report on community wood banks starting with a program in Orland, Maine. The article says that community wood banks are modeled after community food banks. I’m sure that there are many people who can see the comparison, but there was no “modeled on” in the grass roots effort that we call the Woodchucks in Rapid City. It is just good people who want to help others. We know that many homes are not well insulated and don’t have efficient heating systems. We understand that the price of propane fluctuates with the market and can be too expensive for some families with limited incomes. We know that desperate people will take huge risks to stay warm. We don’t know how to solve all of the problems of poverty. We don’t know how to expand employment in reservation communities. We know how to cut and split firewood and we are able to deliver it to partners who help distribute it.

The Black Hills of South Dakota are an excellent place to have a firewood program. There are plenty of sources of donated firewood. An outbreak of pine bark beetles sparked many land owners and managers to thin stands of timber to make the forest more resilient. This resulted in a lot of wood that was not viable to become lumber for construction. Power companies trim trees to prevent outages from downed trees during storms. Landscapers and developers cut down trees to make room for new plantings and construction. Once our Rapid City group got a little recognition, there were plenty of folks willing to donate firewood. Some even asked if the group could cut down trees for them, but we tried to keep it safe and simple. We picked up a lot of logs from the ground, but didn’t get into falling trees.

The New York Times article has a few pictures of community wood banks that have some pretty sophisticated equipment for log handling. I can see how a group might grow to the size that such equipment would be very helpful. I was surprised at how many of us upgraded our chainsaws. Some of the volunteers invested in new trailers. The camaraderie of working together strengthened friendships and the program had a natural way of growing and contracting depending on the availability of volunteers. But we tried to keep it simple. We watched videos of sophisticated wood processors and then went back to doing our work by hand because hard work is meaningful and we had more time than money to donate.

The Times article highlights a small operation in Castine, Maine that gives away about 10 cords of wood each year. Gil Tenney, one of the volunteers who helped start the program said of the group, “We are small, we are energetic, and we are an average age of 75.” That quote struck me because our South Dakota project definitely was staffed primarily by those 65 and older. We good younger volunteers and we were always glad for their help, but the project definitely is dependent upon older volunteers. The times article also refers to the work of splitting and stacking firewood as “backache-inducing work.” I’m not sure that I would go quite that far, but my work as a volunteer woodchuck did teach me to recognize my own limits and to work more carefully and lift correctly in order to avoid injury. Many days I would work for a couple of hours alongside a man 15 years my senior who kept his small chainsaw sharp and worked faithfully day after day. We used to joke that we would start cutting the logs into short pieces and as the day went on the pieces got longer and longer. The early work was for people with small stoves and the work near the end of our time was for folks with bigger stoves.

It was fun to read the New York Times article. Now that I realize that community wood banks are more common than I knew, I agues I should start looking around. Maybe there is a group where I could put my chainsaw, pickup and trailer to good use to help folks keep warm in the winter.

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