Sam Venable 

Department of Irony

A few nights ago, I celebrated the arrival of autumn by lighting the season’s first fire. Let me explain the background of this ritual.

I take my firewood seriously.

I cut it myself.

I haul it myself, with occasional assistance from family members since I underwent back surgery in 2007.

I split it myself—with axe, maul, and wedge, thank you; not one of those sissified hydraulic cheats.

And I stack it myself under a metal-roofed shed I built myself.

Stack it precisely, in fact. So precisely that when editors of the Tennessee Farm Bureau magazine, for which I occasionally write, needed the photo of an oak-hickory Taj Mahal to illustrate an article on firewood, they knew where to turn. I still have the magazine to prove it.

Of course, owning such a trove can lead to jealousy and cruel remarks from the unwashed. More than one associate has made derisive comments about my fortune in firewood.

For instance, every time he comes up the driveway and sees all those neat rows, my fishing buddy David Etnier utters a snide remark involving the word “anal.” Also, many years ago, Marvin West, my old sports editor, told me he’d steal some of my inventory “except I’m sure you’ve got everything serial-numbered.”

Marvin was wrong. I don’t serial-number my firewood. Wayne Doster does.

Wayne, who does skilled carpentry work around our place, chides me relentlessly about the pristine condition of my woodpile. He even sneaked to the house one day when I was away and used a Sharpie pen to inscribe “BR549” on numerous log ends.

(Yes, I immediately noticed the marks—and promptly sent Wayne a terse letter about vandalism.)

I can’t help it. Firewood has been part of my life since childhood. I take pride in the fact that I’m still swinging my father’s double-bit axe, circa 1950.

Thus, on the occasion of fall’s first blaze, I make somewhat of a production. By late February, my nightly fires will long have become a matter of rote. But in October, they tend to be ritualistic.

The first fire must include special wood—bits and pieces that have unique meaning. This time around, I placed on the grate:

A slice of tamarack from Powell Ranger Station in Idaho, where I worked in 1966 and revisited several months ago.

A wedge of rock-hard dogwood, chain-sawed off a hollow log that came from a dead tree at my brother’s house, the house where I grew up.

The remains of a gnarled apple stump, given to me by Morgan Simmons and from which I busted a box full of chunks for meat-smoking.

A twist of barber-pole maple I foolishly attempted to split earlier this year. Arrgh! I’d rather attempt cleaving concrete. Watching the flames consume those cursed, crooked cells brought a wicked smile to my face.

The hollow top of a long-dead sourwood stump I chain-sawed back in the summer while clearing a spot for my wife to plant some rose bushes.

I kindled all these offerings the same way I do every October: with handfuls of shavings that accumulate at my feet as I whittle cedar sticks during book signings at folk festivals.

Then I poured whiskey and a splash, parked myself in Maw’s old chair, and rocked contentedly as flames danced and climbed through the sourwood “chimney.”

Later I walked outside, inhaling the perfume of sweet smoke. I stood alone in the dark, listening to the hoots of a great-horned owl on the west ridge, accompanied by the feeble chirps of a remnant cricket beneath the deck.

Not a bad way to send summer packing.


Sam Venable is an author, entertainer, and columnist for the Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel. He may be reached at
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