Archive for September, 2012

Natural Firestarters

As I’ve said before, Barewood was forested by very old firs and cedars. Decades ago, the area was logged but the stumps continue to provide not only mulch for later plants and habitats for insects and animals, but also wonderful firestarters for our use this winter.

So the above picture is a typical Douglas fir stump. This one is nearly three feet in diameter. The outer bits that you can see in the picture have decayed to the point that I can crumble the wood in my hands. Rotted wood isn’t good for fires, so the stump doesn’t help us much, right? Not necessarily!

When a tree dies suddenly, such as when it is cut down by a logger or struck down by lightning or storm, it takes a while for the roots to “realize” that the tree above is gone, and the below-ground portion of the tree continues to generate nutrients and send them up in the sap. However, because there is no place for the sap to go (since the tree is gone), it collects in the remains of the stump until the roots finally die. In the case of conifers like firs and pines, the sap/pitch of the tree is highly flammable (in fact, they used to make torches out of the stuff!) and it makes the sap-concentrated wood more resistant to decay.

Using a hatchet, machete, or knife, poke or chop around a likely stump until you encounter hard wood, often in a band that is not quite in the center of the tree. Then cut it out with a chainsaw or tree saw and strip away the rotted wood. You will end up with a block that looks similar to this:

Those dark red stripes are area where the pitch has concentrated. Another way to identify what you’re looking for is with your nose: the wood should smell strongly like turpentine, since the turpenes in the sap is how we make turpentine. Sometimes, you’ll also see this:

In this picture, you can actually see where the pitch has collected to such levels that it has squeezed out of the wood and crystallized in the cracks of the stump.

After you have cut a big hunk of sap-rich wood out of the stump, use a hatchet or an axe to split the chunk down into sticks about 6 inches long and maybe 1/2″ wide. These little guys will light with a single match and will burn quite fiercely for ten minutes or more, giving you plenty of time to get your other combustibles going. Here’s what your firestarters might look like:

If you were to buy these little guys retail, they would be called fatwood or pitchwood or lightwood, and they’d cost a pretty penny. But now that you know how to harvest them for yourself, be on the lookout for old stumps!


Incidentally, the pitch is so concentrated in the firestarters I collected that we couldn’t keep them in the house: they made the entire livign room smell like paint thinner and would have given us headaches if we left them lying around! They are now stored in a sealed bucket in the garage…


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New Compost Bins

The woods that covers much of our acreage is an adolescent transition forest. Many years ago, our hillside was under the canopy of 24- and 36-inch Douglas firs and Western cedars that were logged, probably at least 20 years ago, given the decaying nature of the massive stumps they left behind. As is typical in the Pacific Northwest, a cleared area gives way to grasses and shrubs and then transitional trees, mostly birch and red alder, then Western or bigleaf maples, and then finally the cedars and firs return once again. Our woods have mostly alder and maple; most of the short-lived birch is in our woodshed and with only one or two exceptions, the cedars here are less than ten years old. We, like the residents before us, are slowly “helping” our woods transition to cedars and firs more quickly than the 100-150 years the process normally takes. This means we have a lot of young saplings of transitional species that need to be cleared out.


Alder and maple grow quickly, usually in clumps with multiple trunks that grow quite straight and branchless until the upper canopy. These canes are really too small to be of much use as firewood, so we either chip them into mulch or…MAKE WATTLE FENCES!


Wattle is a Bronze Age method of fence making that requires no nails, fasteners, or cords–you simply hammer sharpened posts into the ground and then weaving smaller green canes between them. By the time a sapling is woven between four or so posts, the tension of the bends holds it fairly tightly into place. As the cane dries, it really locks in.


The compost bins that came with Barewood were fashioned of shipping pallets, wired rather loosely together to make three bins. There was no access from the sides of the bins, and they were filled with piles of unchopped plants that were moldering rather than composting. So, I pulled the pallets away, shoveled the compost into a big heap (although I did find a significant layer of aged compost on the bottom that I later spread on several garden beds), and then I remade the bins out of wattle. Now they look like this:




Here are some closer shots to show the wattle more clearly:





Then I used my chipper/shredder to shred the big vegetative stuff into bits, and built a compost pile the right way. Two days later, it was hot enough that it steamed in 80-degree weather. It’s a beautiful thing. It also got me started making wattle fences in other places, along a few of our trails. It’s fun and a good use for the material we’ve needed to clear.

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