A Clean Burn

When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.

–Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “No Trace,” p. 62.

At the moment, I’m working with Vermont Family Forests to explore and articulate a vision known as the Hogback NeighborWood Heating Cooperative. It’s a vision of collective-sufficiency, of neighbors within a small geographic area of central Vermont working together to produce and utilize firewood in ways that are restorative, sustainable, efficient, local, and fair (R-SELF).

The process begins in the forest, with a conscious intention to act not from the perspective of “What do I want to get from this forest?”, but instead from the perspective of “What is this forest willing to yield?” If, as Aldo Leopold noted, “health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal,” then which components of the forest are essential to that self-renewing capacity, and which can safely be taken without compromising the forest’s health?

Once this has been determined—and Vermont Family Forests has codified ways to assess, to the best of current knowledge of forest ecosystems, what the forest can yield without compromising its health—the process moves to careful harvest, firewood processing, delivery, and storage, followed by efficient combustion in an energy-efficient home. The work of envisioning the Hogback NeighborWood Heating Cooperative lies, in large part, in determining how to undertake each of these steps optimally. What, for instance, would be an ideal design for firewood storage to optimize both ease of use and drying?

Drying’s a critical thing, because green wood doesn’t burn efficiently. With red oak, for example, a dry cord (±20% moisture content) will produce about 24 million BTUs, while a green cord (±80% moisture content) will produce 30% fewer BTUs, about 16 million. In other words, I’m wasting 30% of my firewood if I burn it green. In still other words, I’m wasting 30% of the trees I or someone else cut to heat my home; 30% of the woodsworker’s time; 30% of the fuel needed to cut, split, and deliver the wood; 30% of the effort of stacking. What’s more, wet wood burns dirty, leaving creosote in the chimney and pollution in the air.

Lately, I’ve been mulling clean burning on another level, as a metaphor for good work. “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself,” Shunryu Suzuki wrote.  In other words, be like a well-dried piece of wood burning in an efficient stove, with the ardor of your effort fully transferred to the work itself, with as little trace of ego—of “I did this!” “Aren’t I great?” “Look at ME!”—left behind as possible. If only that were as straightforward as stacking oneself in a well-ventilated shed for a year!

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