Guest Post by Kim Moss
The fragrant smell of wood burning falls back to my earliest memories. I think it may have been around a Thanksgiving, in what was then a rolling countryside of fields and fading forest north of New York City, in the late 40’s. It was probably seasoned maple from a stack piled in our basement. I remember hard earth, muted tones of Winter, blue chimney smoke and that fragrance.
It was the beginning of a love affair with cold weather fires and with wood itself, in all its forms, and most likely the reason I took up pipe smoking long ago. Something about the beauty of aged briar burl shaped to contain a small burrow of slow burning tobacco leaf, redolent of the contemplative life.
Before I moved to Santa Fe I lived in Vermont for many years, and heated those cold Winters with hard maple wood. It was always a gratifying chore in late summer, splitting and stacking for the season ahead. I remember a conversation in the 70’s with a friend who was a furniture maker, in his shop, among curled shavings and the smell of freshly milled boards and bees wax. He spoke of a Winter vacation from school in Santa Fe New Mexico, with a brother who was not to survive Vietnam, and of the wonderful pervasive smell of pinon smoke that seemed to be the very essence of the place, forever coloring his memories of that innocent time and town. Now that I’ve lived in New Mexico for years, through many Winters, I know that fragrance well. It never fails to stir memories and imagination.
Although Santa Fe has changed in ways over the years, there is one place that seems caught in time. At the bottom of a descending road called Monte Sol is the Rios wood yard. Here heaps of blocked juniper, pinon and ponderosa pine await splitting into the shorter narrower sizes needed for the innumerable adobe fireplaces throughout the town.
Although oak is available, the softer, less expensive and more fragrant pine is the choice of most people. The wood business in the southwest is quite different from other areas, and takes some getting used to. Besides the wood being softer, burning more quickly than northern hardwoods, it is sold by wheel barrow or by the truck load. A “truck load” being a full sized pick-up bed, rounded over the top. The “cord” measurement used most other places usually goes unheeded.
The Rios wood yard is hemmed in by a rustic coyote fence that opens wide to a mostly 19th century scene (except for the mechanical splitters) of men bending and rising, standing on deep beds of bark, tossing shards of newly cleaved wood into peaked fragrant piles.
The small curved adobe fireplaces in New Mexico usually sit up from the floor in a corner of the room and have an arched opening. The wood lengths are laid in perpendicular teepee fashion against the back, and although these small kivas (as they are called) don’t throw a great deal of heat, they seem to suit the climate and ever present warm Winter sun very well.
In time, I suppose, the Rios wood yard will succumb to “progress” and some restaurant or retail building will rise from the 86 year old floor of bark. If that does happen it will be a shame and a loss, and it’s the reason that any time I’m nearby I change my route to, once again, pass an activity as old, beautiful and essential as the ancient need was, of gathering wood for cooking and warming fires, up here in the high desert.
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